By Paul Kiernan
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell has worked hard to
explain the central bank's policies to ordinary people, hoping to
shore up trust at a time of wavering public faith in institutions.
The effort has produced some unintended results.
On Wednesday, for instance, Mr. Powell outlined the Fed's new
policy of seeking inflation that temporarily overshoots its 2%
"For the last decade, you've seen central banks around the world
really struggle to reach a 2% goal, and in some cases are fighting
outright deflation," Mr. Powell said in a virtual event with the
Economic Club of Washington.
As he spoke, a message board streaming alongside Yahoo Finance's
webcast of the event on YouTube lit up.
"IF INFLATION ISN'T A THING WHY DOES THE MCDONALDS DOLLAR MENU
NO LONGER EXIST," a user identified as Nelson Ting wrote in a
message visible to the 5,000 viewers who had tuned in to watch Mr.
Such are the pitfalls of public outreach in a digital age.
To the dismay of some longtime Fed watchers, Mr. Powell's online
video appearances often are accompanied by live chat-room
commentary. The content, to say the least, doesn't always reflect
the gravitas of the world's most powerful central banker as he lays
out Fed efforts to fight the economic impact of the Covid-19
"Pump pump pump!!! Print the money!!!" a YouTube user identified
as Kyle Bushner wrote during a virtual event by the Bay Area
Council business association in November, which featured the Fed
chief alongside a stream of comments. Efforts to reach Mr. Ting and
Mr. Bushner weren't successful.
Mr. Powell had just reiterated his intention to maintain
easy-money policies until the economy's recovery is complete, a
stance many analysts say has also propped up stocks, commodities
Markets for such assets have boomed over the past year, drawing
legions of novice investors armed with stimulus checks and spare
time. Some have developed an interest in the U.S. central bank,
which investors around the world follow closely.
Mr. Powell's speaking schedule has become busier as he aims to
explain the Fed's expanded role in the economy following the
recession. He made 36 public appearances between April 16, 2020,
and April 16 of this year, versus 27 in the prior 12 months,
according to a Wall Street Journal tally.
His online followers frequently address him directly using his
internet nickname, JPow. Some urge viewers to buy gold or
cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, an asset class Mr. Powell
recently described as "highly volatile...and therefore not really
useful as a store of value."
The supposed imminent demise of the U.S. currency is a favorite
topic of commenters, and conspiracy theories abound. It's hard to
know what's meant to be a joke. "I can't wait till they start
talking about their depopulation program to help with the climate
change problem," a user wrote in the chat that accompanied the
International Monetary Fund's YouTube stream of an event featuring
Mr. Powell and other global policy makers on April 8.
Mixed in are off-the-wall quips. "How do you like your eggs?"
asked one commenter during a Zoom event in January featuring the
Fed chief and a Princeton University economics professor. Another
replied, "Thanks for asking, I like them almost firm yolk! What
David Wilcox, a former Fed director of research, said he finds
the chat windows infuriating. He closes them when he can. If that
isn't possible, he said, he leans a pad of paper against his
computer monitor to block his view of the messages.
"I know this makes me sound like a technological Luddite," Mr.
Wilcox said. "If I'm going to get something useful out of Powell's
remarks, I have to screen out the blather that's going on."
The potential for snarky commentary doesn't factor into
decisions about Mr. Powell's speaking schedule, a person familiar
with the matter said. The Fed disables live comments for events
shown on its own YouTube page, including the chairman's regular
Serious observations occasionally appear in the chat rooms, but
they are few and far between.
Some professionals say they pay scant attention. Nela
Richardson, chief economist at payroll giant Automatic Data
Processing Inc., said she has never even noticed the message boards
because she is usually multitasking while Mr. Powell speaks, with
only the sound on.
It's impossible to identify many commenters because YouTube,
where most of Mr. Powell's live events are broadcast, displays only
usernames. Many appear to be traders or investors. Some complain
about having to stay awake late at night to watch Mr. Powell speak,
suggesting they are in distant time zones.
"Don't taper plz," wrote Nigel Ng, a day trader in Singapore,
during the Princeton University event in January.
Tapering refers to the eventual scaling-back of asset purchases
by the Fed, which has been buying at least $120 billion a month of
Treasury and mortgage-backed securities since June to hold down
borrowing costs. The Fed says it doesn't plan to begin to taper
until the economy recovers further.
Reached via Facebook, Mr. Ng said he had only recently begun
following the Fed chairman's appearances and was just joking around
on the message board. He added he thought that Mr. Powell's voice
sounded weird and that his background, a living room with a kitchen
behind it and no visible windows, "wasn't very flattering."
An especially popular refrain in the chats is a Fed-related
meme, "Brrrr" That's the sound of the central bank printing money,
according to the joke. It emerged in March 2020 as the Fed
aggressively eased monetary policy to help the economy withstand
Some liken the Fed's asset purchases, a process that takes place
entirely over computer networks, to money printing. Physical
currency is produced by the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing,
a part of the Treasury Department.
Kyle Koshiyama, a 24-year-old cryptocurrency trader in Ann
Arbor, Mich., said he tunes in to at least one or two appearances
by Mr. Powell a month and routinely wades into the
"If I'm going to watch it, I'm 100% jumping in on the message
board," Mr. Koshiyama said. "I'm trying to throw feelers out,
seeing what people think about certain asset classes, or what's the
general sentiment regarding any specific thing Powell's talking
He described the chats as an "intellectual king of the hill," in
which certain participants try to drive the direction of the
The chat boards' content often can run counter to the messages
the Fed wants to convey. During the January event, a
Korean-language commenter asked for a translation of Mr. Powell's
Another viewer responded: "It's a bubble right now. I'm going to
raise the interest rate."
Mr. Powell has played down the risk of financial bubbles and has
repeatedly said rate increases are a long way off.
Write to Paul Kiernan at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
April 16, 2021 16:39 ET (20:39 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.