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CNBC Transcript: CNBC's Steve Liesman Speaks with Chicago Fed President Charles Evans at CNBC's @Work Human Capital + Finance

WHEN: Tuesday, July 16, 2019

WHERE: CNBC's "@Work Human Capital + Finance " in Chicago, IL

The following is the unofficial transcript of CNBC's Steve Liesman's interview with Chicago Fed President Charles Evans at CNBC's "@Work Human Capital + Finance" event in Chicago, IL today, Tuesday, July 16th. The following is a link to the partial video on CNBC.com: https://www.cnbc.com/video/2019/07/16/evans-global-economy-fiscal-policy-would-help-inflation.html.

All references must be sourced to CNBC's "@Work Human Capital + Finance."

STEVE LIESMAN: We have Charles Evans of the Chicago Federal Reserve, bank president. Charlie, you've changed a little bit your policy outlook. In early June you were worried about inflation, but kind of said the Fed was in a good place; and now you seem like you've changed a little bit. What is your outlook for policy now?

CHARLES EVANS: Well, that's a good observation. I think inflation has softened a little bit during that time period that you're talking about. And you know, over a slightly longer period, you go back to -- since the Fed started raising rates, I was always a little nervous, was this the right time to start raising rates? I think early on, 2015, December it was, 2016, it was. But you know, I was worried, was inflation going to get up to 2 percent? Our objective, which is symmetric, so we should be above 2 percent sometimes and below, and I think it's worked all right. There was a moment -- well, there was a period of time after, you know, one of the big phone companies had a big reduction in their data rates and the CPI, the data, you know, was very light for a while; was that temporary? Was it something else? You know, we've been under 2 percent for a long time, so I've been worried about it. And then, you know, sort of with the most recent nervousness, I would just say, you know, I think that a little more combination would be helpful for ensuring that we confidently get to 2 and above 2 percent. I really think that 2 1/4, or a little bit more than that, would be about appropriate for our economy and monetary policy. At this point in the economic cycle we're, you know, ten years into an expansion, and if we're ever going to be above 2 percent during this cycle, we think this would be about right.

STEVE LIESMAN: I will say you have been very consistent about your concern about what you call the symmetric inflation target, which I guess means if you run a little bit under 2 percent, you shouldn't be too concerned if you run a little bit over. How much help does the economy need from the Fed in getting to a 2 percent target?

CHARLES EVANS: Well, that's a great way to ask the question, because there are other ways that we could get to 2 percent. If we had even more stimulative fiscal policy or if the state of the global economy was much stronger, so that that increased exports, if the state of the economy was even stronger than it is now -- and it's really quite solid -- you know, if there's other additions to aggregate demand, that tends to increase inflation and then the Fed wouldn't have to do as much. At this moment, the way the economy is going and the state of anchored inflation expectations, we just seem to be a little bit less than 2. It's not bad, really. I mean, I think it's a danger for the strategy of monetary policy if it's perceived that we can't get up to 2 percent and 2 percent is thought of as more of a ceiling. But, you know, other factors, stronger business environment where investment increases, more people coming into the workforce, growing economy, that would tend to lift wages and lift inflation. And so we only really should be doing as much as is necessary; but at the moment, it seems like a little bit more is necessary.

STEVE LIESMAN: The market debates I think the following issue. If you were to cut in July, is it a "one and done" thing, is it more than one, 25 basis-point rate cut that's needed; or do you do what has been talked about, no less than the Fed Chairman has talked about, this idea of an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, which is as you get down towards 0, the Fed ought to act early and act forcefully? Where do you come down on those three issues?

CHARLES EVANS: They are all important.

STEVE LIESMAN: You can't do all three at once in July.

CHARLES EVANS: Well, I think that we need to, you know, have our strategy in mind. And so I think that it's very important to ratify and be very affirmative that inflation can go above 2 percent, that it's not a ceiling. And I look at the forecast that I was asked to submit in June. And in order to get inflation up to 2 1/4 percent over the next three years, I needed 50-basis points of more accommodation; and, in fact, maybe that's not quite enough. I kind of think that that would increase inflation expectations and that would help. So, on the basis of inflation, last time I was on talking with you, I had the same story, which is I think inflation itself is enough. Now you talk about an ounce of prevention because the global economy is weaker than certainly it was in 2017. In 2017, it was very strong; and now it's moderated, and it's a little bit weaker. So that's not a source of strength and so from a risk management standpoint, it makes sense that you might think that we're a little bit more restrictive because of that and we need to be even more accommodative.

STEVE LIESMAN: You didn't mention trade in that list of things you're concerned about.

CHARLES EVANS: Well, the global economy is weaker. There are trade uncertainties. Obviously the administration is pursuing a different trade strategy where there's aggressive use of tariffs, brinksmanship, trying to get other countries to alter their policies; and, you know, we'll just have to see how it works. It's a different style. But that comes with adding more uncertainty and, you know, you're never quite sure how the other party's going to react. And so it's not what I do for a living, but in terms of how you think about businesses must be reacting to the overall environment, it seems like this injects uncertainty in their decision-making.

STEVE LIESMAN: I think the sum of your answers already answered this question, but I just want to be clear about it. You would still be an advocate of easing policy if there was suddenly a deal between China and the U.S.?

CHARLES EVANS: Unless I had great reason to think that that would somehow create a lot of inflation, yes, I think that's right. I think, on the basis of inflation alone, I could feel confident in arguing for a couple of rate cuts before the end of the year.

STEVE LIESMAN: All right. One more question on near-term policy here. I paint the following picture of this fictitious economy: Unemployment near a 50-year low, a recent payroll number that was well in excess of expectations, a strong retail sales number just this morning, economy running roughly at the Central Bank's view of potential growth. Inflation, 3/10 below the Fed's target or the Central Bank -- the fictitious Central Bank's target. You give me that stuff on a piece of paper. I don't go from there to you need to cut rates. How do you explain or cut rates into environment where it seems like the economy is doing reasonably well?

CHARLES EVANS: I was expecting you to say the opposite; I was expecting you to say that's exactly the argument for a rate cut. Economy's --

STEVE LIESMAN: That's why I'm not on the board, among other reasons.

(Laughter.)

CHARLES EVANS: Economic fundamentals are solid.

STEVE LIESMAN: Right.

CHARLES EVANS: If what we really mean is, we're supposed to provide monetary and financial conditions to promote maximum employment and price stability, and price stability is symmetric, 2 percent inflation, we need to go above 2 percent at some point or else I'm worried everybody out in the audience and around the world is going to go, that 2 percent certainly looked like a ceiling, didn't it? They really were worried about going above 2 percent, weren't they? They were under -- you know, 3/10 under 2 percent and for how long? I mean, we haven't cracked 2 percent on a sustained basis since the Great Recession; and you know, if you don't do that, I worry a lot. I don't want anybody to think that we're in a position like the Bank of Japan where they got really nervous about all of this and they've been dealing with it. I think the European Central Bank has been a little bit better but behind what we've done at the Fed. So I mean, I think those are the issues.

STEVE LIESMAN: One more follow-up. I'm sorry, folks, I do want to move on to the broader questions. But you said 50-basis points of tightening is what you think is needed to bring inflation back up. Do you have a sense of the timing of when that 50 basis points is needed?

CHARLES EVANS: The kind of exercise that we do, it's not so critical. I mean, I said before the end of the year, but I think what's -- the way that I think about this is, I look at the forecast, and what is it that's necessary to generate 2 1/4 percent inflation, at least? And 2 1/2 is okay, too, because we've been under 2 percent by more than a half a percentage point. If you were to average 2 over some period of time, I think the way that this would likely happen would be consistent with a definition of symmetry. We probably need to work a little harder at explaining what we mean by "symmetry" because I think everybody has a little slightly different idea in their mind. I think part of the monetary policy conference that we were thinking about is kind of geared towards understanding that, or at least that's how I see it. But you know -- so I think that if, you know, if 100-basis points got us to 2 1/2, well, that's still consistent with symmetry. I think a lot of this is, you know, how is the committee thinking about this? How do the members come into the meeting? What is on their mind? I will say that it's a little lonely to be talking about symmetry and, you know, it being above 2. I mean, we all say, yeah, it's symmetric; but when you start explaining what you think is consistent with that, mine is a bit more picturesque on the upside relative to, you know, quite a few people. So that's why we go into the meeting. All participants talk, and we'll come out with a strategy. I would think we would be well served by overshooting 2 percent. I definitely think that we need to work hard to do everything that we can to get to 2 percent, with confidence.

STEVE LIESMAN: We are going to get to this issue of why, and the connection of the labor market to inflation, which is critical. But I do need to ask one other question, which is about President Trump, on a nearly daily basis now, criticizes the Federal Reserve Chairman and the Fed itself. He said that: If not for Fed policy, we would be growing faster. He said that this morning. Is that true?

CHARLES EVANS: You know, I think we've had a tremendous amount of stimulus for the economy; we had a big tax cut, tax reform. They added more government spending. That's sort of, you know, been waning now with the effects of that over a couple of years. And so we're coming down to trend growth.I mean, I guess the short answer is, if you had more accommodative policy, you would guess that that would stimulate the economy a little bit more. I think that the path for the economy, at the moment, is one towards trend growth. I think trend growth is about 1 3/4 percent. We're looking at 2 to 2 1/4 percent growth this year, maybe 2 percent next year. That's slightly above trend. I don't think we should be in the business, necessarily, of generating excess stimulus in order to get growth up. We want to continue the expansion, there is no doubt about it. But find the right balance. It does turn out that because inflation is undershooting that that's a fine thing to do. So, yeah, I guess I am kind of saying, yeah, you know, it would have been stronger if we hadn't raised rates. There can be an argument for that. You've got to be very careful in how you think about it. And there's so much else going on, I think the risk management argument is really a good one. The economy is solid. I don't really want to be talking down the economy, because I don't think that's the state of the economy. It's just that there are a lot of risks out there. And there's Brexit, you know, October 31st. You know, "no-deal Brexit" seems to be back on the table, if I understand some of the discussions of the, you know, future prime minister. And, you know, who knows how that plays out, unless they also get some type of new deal from the EU. So there's a lot of uncertainty.

STEVE LIESMAN: President Trump's been unique among the past three presidents, but not perhaps before that, in commenting on the Federal Reserve. How do you feel about the idea of a president talking and advising in sort of strong words what the Central Bank should be doing?

CHARLES EVANS: You know, we've got a job to do. We have to pay attention to the economy. We have to go out and explain why we're doing it. We have to explain why this policy is good for the state of the economy. Fundamentals are solid. So I think we've got a good story to tell, even with the -- maybe an ounce of prevention is the right measure at this time. So I think it just goes with the territory, sometimes more than other times. But, look, I think when you go out and state the case very strongly, which I think is very important. Central Bank needs to be independent. We need to have some distance between us and short-run political pressure, because somebody's got to make hard decisions when the economy needs something that other folks would say, Oh, no, you know, that would be too hard. Paul Volcker needed that measure of independence in order to raise rates, get inflation down in '79 through '82. And so when you ask for independence perhaps somewhat arrogantly, I think you're saying, look, I'm going to be accountable, you get to criticize, and you've got to have a thick skin.

STEVE LIESMAN: Let's pivot from that, and it's not really that strong a pivot because it really cuts -- the economic argument cuts to the heart of the political argument, which is, how fast should the economy be allowed to run? How low can unemployment go? And one of the things that I have seen over the time -- and I've been covering the Fed for like 20 years now -- is an extraordinary decline in the kind of acceptable run rate of the economy when it comes to the unemployment rate. You guys used to be freaked out at 6, 6 1/2 percent, and then it was kind of 5, 5 1/2, and then it was 4, 4 1/2. And now, as I talked about earlier, you're about to cut rates with the unemployment rate near a 50-year low; and the fundamental underpinning of that is that the unemployment or the low unemployment is not producing the expected inflation that you thought would come. What happened? Has everything from the macro textbooks -- you've just taken up the first, what, 112 pages, is that what we're doing here and we start in the middle?

CHARLES EVANS: Another great question. I think I probably start all of these responses the same way, don't I, because they are. You know, there's so many ways that I could respond here. One, our job is to keep inflation, you know, at 2 percent symmetrically. I have to admit to you the inflation-generating process is one fraught with uncertainty --

STEVE LIESMAN: Right.

CHARLES EVANS: -- so I rely on a whole bunch of things. You know, in the old days, Milton Friedman and others would point to monitorism and look at money growth rates. Money growth rates don't work, haven't worked for a long time. You know, we sort of look at labor slack, slack in the economy, with the idea that when resources are used quite a lot and they're very scarce, then the price of that scarce resource gets bid up. And if it's labor, then wages get bid up and then that gets passed along. So you have ways --

STEVE LIESMAN: Let me stop you there, Charlie.

CHARLES EVANS: -- but the Phillips curve explanation hasn't worked very well.

STEVE LIESMAN: This gets right to what I think is of the interest of people in the audience. Now, on the one hand you have low unemployment and the scarcity of workers, or growing scarcity. On the other hand, you don't really have wages going up that much.

CHARLES EVANS: Yeah, so it gets at what we mean by scarcity of workers. You know, I talk to business people all the time. For a number of years I've heard it's really hard to find the talented workers that they're looking for; it's hard to find workers with the skill sets that they're looking for. It's a new skill set that's in high demand in the workforce, and people who don't have that skills, they're not in such demand. So how do they fit in? What's their next best alternative? What type of retraining might they need? How well is that going to work out? It's very complicated, very difficult. And wages, even with the low national unemployment rate, you know, 3.8, 3.7, we haven't seen strong wage pressure. We've seen, you know, good wage growth; and productivity is not as strong as we would like. And so in line with a little bit lower productivity, wage growth has come in. But, still, it could be higher I think with a higher inflation expectations. So there's an argument that we're not really pressing the, you know, the true scarcity limit there; that maybe the national rate of unemployment is lower than what we've been thinking about. That's why I think we're well served by the dual mandate. The dual mandate says, you know, look for sustainable growth, look for maximum employment, but also balance this against price stability. Inflation is lower than our objective. We can afford -- we would be well served to be a little more accommodative in the pursuit of getting inflation up, and it is well aligned with continuing to provide opportunities for people in the workforce that have struggled to find good opportunities. People on the lower end of the skill set are in demand. They are finding jobs. People middle income and below that are finding good opportunities, working, reinforcing their attachment to the labor force, which ought to have a longer lasting effect even beyond this cycle. And the longer this cycle lasts, the more opportunity there is. So I think those are messages that came out of our Fed Listens conferences, from the panelists, people in the community. I love the question that my colleague, Eric Rosengren, asked the panelists: Is it possible that unemployment rate could maybe go too low, and then, you know, when it comes back up that generates all kinds of problems? I think the fellow was Marcus [sic] Jones, a big -- he'd worked at LISC, and it was sort of like, well, you know, a lot of times, in the neighborhood, it always feels like a recession. So you know, it's feeling better now. Let's keep this going. And there's just more opportunities --

STEVE LIESMAN: I thought you were going to say can the unemployment rate have a true handle on it.

CHARLES EVANS: You know, I'm not in the game of trying to figure out exactly what that number is. At the moment it's just sort of I'm not seeing the inflation pressures, I'm not seeing --

STEVE LIESMAN: And until you do...

CHARLES EVANS: Yeah, that's right.

STEVE LIESMAN: Interesting.

CHARLES EVANS: That's right.

STEVE LIESMAN: Let's talk about the workforce, which is changing. And I remember Alan Greenspan years ago made a joke at Jackson Hole. He said: We don't know a lot that's true about economics, like in physics or something like that, but we do know one thing. The vast majority of people who are 35 now, 30 years from now will be 65.

(Laughter.)

STEVE LIESMAN: That was a pretty good economics joke. We don't have many good economics jokes, but that's one of them, and you guys can use that. But quote Alan, don't quote me. But we have this changing workforce here. And I was always feeling pretty good being born in '63 because I'm the last year of the baby boom, which means I'll always have a job, but never be able to retire. That's my take on the world here.

CHARLES EVANS: You don't want to retire.

STEVE LIESMAN: I don't. Love my job. But tell me about the way that you think about the demographics of the workforce. Who and I'm going to say what will power this economy in the coming decades?

CHARLES EVANS: So this has been, you know, a long economic cycle. It's been a long recovery. It's been marked by relatively slow growth rates, 2 percent. We have, over a long period of time, enjoyed average growth rates during expansions of 3 1/4 percent, you know. I just said earlier the trend growth looks to me like 1 3/4 percent. There's a big difference between those things. And more growth covers a whole host of problems and sort of allows more people to enjoy that. So, you know, why can't we have -- you know, why are we looking at 1 3/4 percent? And productivity is not quite as high as you would like, although it's way better expected to be than 1973 to '95. But on the labor front, you've got the baby boomers aging.

STEVE LIESMAN: Retiring.

CHARLES EVANS: You've got the demographics. You've got female labor force participation, which added a lot of lift to the growth of the economy in the '60s, '70s, and '80s; and into the '90s. It's flattened out, so it's not adding more growth; it's just women participating more. So that's another reason why we're not getting as strong a growth. Younger people don't have the same attachment to the workforce, 18 to 24, that they used to have, so they're providing fewer labor hours, too. So, you put that together and you kind of go, going forward, it looks to me like a labor input growth is going to be 1/2 a percent annually; 1/2 a percent plus 1 1/4 percent productivity growth gets you 1 3/4 percent. Now, demographics are driving so much of this. So, you know, what if you want 3? What is the public policy argument for how you get to 3? Well, you've got to work on both that productivity and labor. Productivity is very hard. Computers, integrated circuitry didn't lead to stronger productivity until like the '90s. Labor, though. How do you get more labor input growth when the economy's aging? More people are coming into the labor force. More people are working over the age of 65, you're exactly right. You don't have to retire. You might not work full-time, but more people are working. I kind of wonder how much of this is exactly what they were wishing for 30 years ago, or 10 years ago, and the fact that we had this Great Recession that hurt people's retirement. Now you're hitting retirement. But one way or another, people 55 and over, they are working a little bit more. And there's reason to suspect that there might be more slack, too --

STEVE LIESMAN: Right.

CHARLES EVANS: -- if people who are working part-time would like full-time. People are out of the workforce because they're looking for a full-time job, and then they jump to that. But, I mean, how do you get labor input growth? You can't just birth 25-year-olds --

STEVE LIESMAN: You got to have babies or you got to have immigrants, one way or the other.

CHARLES EVANS: But you can't birth25-year-olds.

STEVE LIESMAN: Working on it --

CHARLES EVANS: So if you get the growth rate up tomorrow --

STEVE LIESMAN: -- through that whole nasty period there.

(Laughter.)

CHARLES EVANS: -- this will help you --

STEVE LIESMAN: But it sounds like your argument, which is a fascinating argument that I hadn't thought about, because everybody talks about labor or robots, it sounds like your argument is we need lots more labor and we need more robots?

CHARLES EVANS: That's probably the case. It's unlikely that you're going to get --

STEVE LIESMAN: -- meaning more people to work?

CHARLES EVANS: You want to fill in 1 1/4 percentage points. If you're satisfied with 3, a lot of people at this point would go: I can give you 4. You need more. This is sustained, not just for one year, not just for two years, not just for --

STEVE LIESMAN: You've got to grow the workforce more, and you've got to grow productivity more, unless --

CHARLES EVANS: I mean, look at Japan. Japan refused to expand immigration and --

STEVE LIESMAN: Right.

CHARLES EVANS: -- you know, they've had, you know, terrible growth rates.

STEVE LIESMAN: But they have a lot more robots than we do per capita, just so you know.

CHARLES EVANS: Necessity is the mother of all invention, right?

STEVE LIESMAN: We have a little bit of time for questions, folks. Does anybody have one for President Evans here? Right over here.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I have a leadership question for you. So much of the news coverage has been devoted to Trump's war on the Fed. And when I think about that in the context of our business, it's kind of the equivalent of the chairman of our company publicly undermining the CFO of the business. How have you kept morale up through the process of what Trump has publicly been stating in recent months?

CHARLES EVANS: Well, it's a little bit like what I was saying earlier, which is, you know, we -- you know, Congress and the President, there's a history of providing a level of independence to the Federal Reserve, letting them do the job that they need to. There is a history of being criticized by the President. You know, I thought it went back much further, but I was interested when I read Don Kohn make some remarks at a Brookings conference that sort of said, well, beginning with sort of the Clinton administration, the administration -- presidents have gone quieter in criticizing the Fed. And so, you know, there have been times where -- you know, there's an awful lot at stake when you're president, right? I mean, there were claims that the chairman of the Fed and Richard Nixon got together in the '70s, before the '72 election. You know, I mean, there were certainly concerns that policy was different in order to help one side, to get the economy going or something. And so I think independence is important. Take us out of the political calculation. Let everybody question us, question the Chair, talk about why we're doing it, you know, learn from people's comments. You know, when the President says, you know, if rates had been lower, growth would be stronger, you know, there is an element of our economic analysis that's right, you know, in there. The question is: What's the right policy? How are we thinking about it? And, you know, we're doing the best that we can.

STEVE LIESMAN: Right here.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. Sidney Dillard, Loop Capital Markets. I just wanted to ask a question. You talked about kind of that there aren't enough folks participating in the workforce. And I wanted to talk specifically here in Chicago, when you look at kind of the most underutilized and with the least amount of access to jobs are the minority communities.

CHARLES EVANS: Right.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: And that's probably the case across the country in major urban cities. How do you -- how does that factor in? What are your thoughts about that in the context of workforce participation and how you actually add people to the workforce?

CHARLES EVANS: Yeah, that's a great question, because that's definitely a concern. I mean, unemployment rates for, you know, underrepresented minorities are higher than the national average. How do we, you know, allow everyone to enjoy the benefits of the economy if the economy is growing but only for, you know, 10, 20, 60 percent of everybody who's participating? That's not right. So I would say that it's a really hard issue in the sense that I think so much of it is local. In Chicago, we've put a lot of effort into the Chicago financial services pipeline. And so there's a great interest in getting more African-Americans and Hispanics, getting representation for women to the right levels within financial services, there's an argument to broaden it beyond that, you know, into all professional services and beyond. But 17 financial institutions have come together, had consultants look at our labor market structures in the firms and offer some pointers for, you know, how we improve things. And a lot of it makes, you know, perfect sense. Get more people in; make sure people don't leave for the wrong reasons; make sure that they're engaged and they have opportunities; that they have champions within the organization; and that they're given positions so that they can meaningfully have an opportunity to move up. And then you get better representation at all the levels. I think that programs like that, no matter how narrow they might be within one industry, have, you know, tremendous -- you know, they show a light as to, here's a program that seems to be working, or it offers opportunity. We've got a lot of work to do and maybe it could be a model in other places, so that's some of the way I think about it.

STEVE LIESMAN: We have time for just one more. There's one in the back here.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I would appreciate your comments about government debt and how it might potentially be squeezing us in the future, I'm thinking primarily August/September time frame.

CHARLES EVANS: Awe, okay, those are two kind of different issues. One is the overall level of debt; the other one is the, uh --

STEVE LIESMAN: Debt ceiling?

CHARLES EVANS: -- legal law that we have that even if you've appropriated the funds and gone out and spent it, you're not -- you know, you still have to keep the debt under that, even though you've already said it's okay to go past that. The debt ceiling, I think our Congress and the President have to get together and figure out, you know, how to get that extended. I think that's very important. I think that's another issue that makes everybody nervous. We've been going through more intense bouts of this going back to 2011, I would say, and it's not helpful for the economy. I think that when business leaders and, you know, people working have to think about, Wow, how is this going to play out six months after that if -- you know, we've already shut down the government over other issues, and so I just don't think that that's helpful. In terms of the debt, that's a really difficult, you know, question. We certainly have very large deficits. Congress and the President have agreed to continue that tradition of extending those deficits with the most recent tax reform, and so I'm not quite sure what the, you know, next level of thinking is. I'm looking and listening on both as a Fed person and just an American citizen, really.

STEVE LIESMAN: I have done here what I do every day on television, which is anger my producers by going over my time cues, so I'm going to have to end it here.

Please join me in thanking Charlie Evans.

(Realtime Transcription by www.RealtimeTranscription.com)

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