It's nirvana for nerds. Oscar night for economic policy wonks. The most coveted invitation in the clubby world of central bankers, Wall Street analysts, academic economists and financial reporters who closely follow the U.S. Federal Reserve and its illustrious chairman, Alan Greenspan.
The envelope please: "The Greenspan Era: Lessons for the Future."
This is the title of the 29th annual economic symposium hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, which begins here tonight.
"For those who are turned on by good economics and rigorous debate about economic policymaking, this is it," said Mickey Levy, chief economist at Bank of America, as he prepared to attend the three-day meeting.
Forget Davos, the Swiss resort town where the elite World Economic Forum holds its annual gathering of more than 2,000 executives, politicians, power brokers and movie stars. The Jackson Hole conference is much more exclusive: Only about 100 participants are allowed each year (though each may bring a guest to the meals and receptions).
Last year, more than two dozen of those slots went to Fed policymakers and staff, and about a dozen more went to journalists. That left roughly 60 seats open to the scores of academic and government economists, analysts, investment bankers, reporters and others hoping to go -- either for the intellectual fruits or professional status to be gained.
This year, the lobbying was particularly intense because of the topic, according to several people familiar with the process who spoke on condition they not be identified. Greenspan just observed his 18th anniversary as Fed chairman and has indicated that he intends to step down next year after his term expires Jan. 31. He is planning to deliver his "Reflections on Central Banking" at the opening of tomorrow's meeting and to add some personal remarks at the closing session on Saturday.
Provocatively, former Fed vice chairman Alan S. Blinder, who clashed with Greenspan at times during their service together at the central bank, is scheduled to deliver the first paper, titled "Understanding the Greenspan Standard."
Many people who had hoped to attend the conference were disappointed -- or even angry -- about being left out.
The Kansas City Fed bank hosts the conference every year, picking the theme and compiling the guest list. Trying to pull strings through the Federal Reserve's Board of Governors in Washington or through the other regional Fed banks doesn't help. Scalpers would have a field day -- if there were any tickets for sale.
Kansas City Fed officials decline to discuss how the guests are chosen, but others said the bank tries to tailor the participants list to the topic, in this case inviting many current and former Greenspan colleagues. There were just far more people who wanted to be there than could possibly be included.
For the lucky few, much of the pleasure of the meeting comes from the stunningly beautiful location -- a small lodge nestled in the Grand Teton National Park, with majestic views of the nearby mountains. But for true economic policy devotees, the real joy comes from serious discussions of papers and policies with the rock stars of their profession.
The economic papers come loaded with regression analysis and econometric models. The topics for discussion include "Business Cycle Dynamics and Monetary Policy" and "Central Bank Transparency and Communications Policy."
Turned on yet?
For those who can handle the math, the quality of the discussion is compelling. The conference always provides "well-designed programs with outstanding paper contributions and serious, lively discussion on leading issues," Levy said.
There is no red carpet in the lodge lobby, but the folks in jeans or khakis schlepping bags off the airport shuttle include some big names.
Among those scheduled to attend this year are former Clinton-era Treasury secretary Robert E. Rubin, now a director of Citigroup and a scheduled luncheon speaker. Harvard University President Lawrence Summers, Rubin's successor as Treasury secretary, is coming as well.
Thus, the occasion will mark a reunion of the "Committee to Save the World," as Time Magazine dubbed Rubin, Summers and Greenspan in early 1999 after the trio had worked together to manage global policy responses to financial crises in Mexico, Asia, Brazil and Russia.
White House officials have said the president does not intend to nominate a successor to Greenspan until the new year, but several men widely regarded as possible candidates will be at Jackson Hole: Ben S. Bernanke, chairman of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers and a former Fed board member; R. Glenn Hubbard, dean of Columbia University's business school and a former CEA chairman under Bush; and Martin Feldstein, president of the National Bureau of Economic Research and former CEA chairman under President Reagan. Former Fed board member Lawrence Lindsey, whose name was recently floated by the White House as another candidate for Fed chief, is not attending.
Fed Vice Chairman Roger W. Ferguson Jr. is chairing tomorrow's session. A Democrat, he is mentioned by some as a long-shot candidate to replace Greenspan.
The international Who's Who of attendees includes Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, and Mervyn A. King, governor of the Bank of England.
The Jackson Hole conference "humanizes the whole process" of economic policymaking, said Diane Swonk, senior economist for Mesirow Financial, a privately held investment management and advisory firm.
The formal sessions end at lunch tomorrow and Saturday. This leaves afternoons free for participants to go off together and ponder economics while hiking, horseback riding, fishing, golfing, touring the Grand Teton park or venturing to nearby Yellowstone National Park.
The conference takes Fed staff and academics "out of their ivory tower" and puts them together with other policymakers, analysts who track Fed actions for the financial markets and journalists who translate the Fed for the public, Swonk said. "It's the unique mix of those individuals -- that's the beauty of it."