The Little Rock branch of the St. Louis Federal Reserve is expecting a record turnout next week for a unique event aimed at helping Arkansas high school students learn more about the regional economy and the work of the nation’s central bank.
On Thursday (Feb. 22) the Federal Reserve branch will hold its annual “Bring Your Students to Dinner with an Economist” event at the Statehouse Convention Center free of charge for any Arkansas high school student to attend.
Started in 2012, the annual dinner has become a local staple that has grown in popularity with more than 100 students already registered to attend this year’s event, said Kris Bertelsen, senior economic education specialist at the local office of the St. Louis Fed’s sprawling Eighth District.
“We’ve got students coming from Mountain Home on one side and Camden on the other side and everywhere in between,” Bertelsen said.
The expansive Eighth District, which is led by St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard, has branch offices in Little Rock, Louisville and Memphis. One of 12 Federal Reserve banks located across the U.S., the Eight District spans across seven states that includes most of Arkansas, eastern Missouri, southern Indiana, southern Illinois, western Kentucky, western Tennessee and northern Mississippi.
Led by Robert Hopkins, the Little Rock branch has seven board members and serves most of Arkansas except the northeast corner of the state. The St. Louis Fed’s board of directors chooses four members, while the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors in Washington, D.C., selects the other three based on recommendations from the St. Louis Fed.
The Little Rock branch, which has several advisory councils and an outreach and education arm, provides one of the most direct ways for Branch staff to gauge economic conditions of the area. Representing all parts of the Little Rock zone, the seven local members of the board play a role in helping the St. Louis Fed monitor the economic pulse of the area, Bertelsen said.
The annual dinner with a Fed economist was developed by the local branch’s education advisory board, which reached out to teachers across the state to gauge their interest in a forum that focuses on financial planning and economic matters.
“We wanted to try something where students and professors had a chance to hear from economists in a little different setting,” Bertelsen said. “This is the third consecutive year where we have had a lot of growth so we moved it out of our branch office to the (convention center).”
Hopkins, senior vice president of the St. Louis Fed and the regional executive for the Little Rock office, said he is amazed at the student’s level of understanding of the economy and the interest the event now gets from students across the state. At last year’s dinner that included a three-personal economic panel, Hopkins said many students quizzed the Fed economists about inflation.
“From my perspective, the thing that has surprised me through the years when we’ve done this event and similar events like this is that inflation is one topic that the kids kind of zero in on,” Hopkins said the recent spike in the price of good and services and decline in consumer’s purchasing power. “Some arrive there obviously with an understanding of prices and how they can change and impact them, but I think for some students (inflation) is news to them.”
Hopkins said although some questions from the students result in more serious or technical discussions, the Little Rock staff tries to make the event educational and fun. He joked that many students’ attention and interest is peaked when the discussion turns to how the Fed impacts the nation’s monetary policy and interest rates.
“The piece that the Fed can create and destroy (monetary) policy and how we go about doing that … hits them at an intellectual but also a fun level – ‘you know like, oh really that’s great you guys can create money,’” Hopkins said jokingly.
David Wheelock, vice president and deputy director of research with the St. Louis Fed, is the feature speaker at Thursday’s event. Hopkins said Wheelock is not only one of the Fed’s top economists, his research interest also includes financial and monetary history.
Bertelsen said this year’s event will also include a presentation about the function of the Federal Reserve system, including the role of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) as the nation’s primary monetary policymaking body. The FOMC includes all members of the Fed’s Board of Governors and five of the 12 Reserve bank presidents, including Bullard.
Nearly two weeks ago, Jerome Powell was sworn in as the new Federal Reserve chairman by President Donald Trump. Powell replaced Janet Yellen, the first woman to serve as the nation’s chief monetary policymaker.