Four Federal Reserve Chairs – Past and Present – Address Audience of Millennials at International House in New York City

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The inaugural Paul A. Volcker Distinguished Speaker Series at International House showcased current and former Federal Reserve Chairs Janet Yellen, Ben Bernanke, Alan Greenspan and Paul Volcker – in their first ever joint conversation -- as they discussed interest rates and economic bubbles as well as the challenge of communicating complex decisions effectively.

This historic conversation had less to do with interest rates and more to do with the Fed Chairs’ perspectives on leadership and values in their decision making. This focus on values resonated with the residents, and the mission of International House.

The four living Federal Reserve Chairs appeared in conversation together for the first time ever on April 7, 2016 at International House, a NYC residence for selected graduate students preparing to be the next generation of global leaders.    

With candor and humor, Janet Yellen, Ben Bernanke, Alan Greenspan (remotely from Washington, D.C.) and Paul Volcker took the stage and discussed interest rates, economic bubbles and the challenges of communicating effectively and transparently. But they also described how they handled the stresses of the crises they faced. Mr. Volcker wondered aloud if the carpet in his old office was still threadbare, the result of his pacing back and forth for eight years.

The occasion was the launch of the Paul A. Volcker Distinguished Speaker Series at International House. For 14 years, Mr. Volcker served as Chairman of the International House Board and remains a Trustee Emeritus. More than 400 people – residents, trustees, friends of I-house, and members of the media -- were in the audience.

Hosting the four Fed Chairs is another significant moment in International House’s rich 92-year history. This is one of the organization’s ongoing initiatives intended to make International House the ‘Millennial Davos’ – a forum for global young professionals to improve the state of the world.

Said International House President Calvin Sims, “This historic conversation had less to do with interest rates and more to do with the Fed Chairs’ perspectives on leadership and values in their decision making. This focus on values resonated with the residents, and the mission of I-House.”

The Fed Chairs requested that questions from the audience come from I-House residents. Their answers offered never-before-seen glimpses into the Chairs’ personalities and leadership styles -- a very human look at the three men and one woman who are among the most influential leaders in the world.

Lu Zheng, a 26 year old now studying at Columbia Business School, was thrilled to have been selected as one of the “voices” of the millennials. Her question dealt with the partisan political squabbles that surrounded each of the Fed Chairs’ appointments.

Former Chair Ben Bernanke spoke about the global and U.S. banking crises and the Great Recession in 2007 and 2008. Engaged and precise, he told Lu that the Fed has always faced political pressures and all a Chair can do is the right thing and be as transparent as possible.

Former Chair Volcker noted that he faced no political opposition the first time he was appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. But four years later, after he raised interest rates in order to end high levels of inflation, political opposition was significant. He laughed when he recalled that in 1983, during his second confirmation process, “12 right wing Senators and 12 left wing Senators” were among his sharpest critics.

His actions directly impacted one graduate student at the time. James Gorman, now Chairman and CEO of Morgan Stanley, lived at International House from 1985 to 1987 while earning his M.B.A. at Columbia University. Originally from Australia, he introduced the Fed Chairs’ conversation by reading letters that he wrote home during those years. He recalled that when he had to borrow money for books and supplies, his interest rate was a whopping 24.5 percent – thanks to Chairman Volcker’s actions.

A current I-House Trustee, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, led the discussion. His questions, along with those from the residents, revealed that the Fed Chairs are certainly not detached from the financial decisions that they make.

Said I-House President and CEO Calvin Sims, “The community of young adults at I-House is engaged, thoughtful and eager to discuss how they can build a better world. This event – and many more like it to come – give them greater global knowledge. Together they are a beacon of international harmony and understanding, proving day in and out that humanity can surpass the barriers of race, nationality, culture and traditions that have so long divided the world.”

International House (http://www.ihouse-nyc.org)
A non-profit residential and programmatic center, founded by the Rockefeller and Dodge families in 1924, to provide cross cultural learning and training for the next generation of global leaders. The community includes 750 graduate students and scholars from over 100 countries, including one-third from the United States, who are pursuing their academic and professional goals at over 75 institutions of higher learning in the New York City area. The institution’s core values are empathy, leadership and moral courage.

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Kathy Gallagher deMeij

Jacqueline Adams
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