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Live from the St. Louis Federal Reserve, it's 'Squawk Box' -- and a lesson in economics

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 8, 2010 - The staid marble and gold-tipped lobby of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank was all a-clutter with TV cameras, lights, wiring, technicians and assorted staffers in the pre-dawn Friday morning, as president James Bullard guest-hosted CNBC's business program "Squawk Box" from 5 to 8 a.m.

Seated at the head of a long, polished table, the unflappable Bullard fielded questions about economic policy and the nation's stagnant jobs numbers from anchors Joe Kernen, Becky Quick, Carl Quintanilla and economics reporter Steve Liesman. Bullard invited business leaders from the Fed's Eighth District to drop by the set to join in the economic banter, and CNBC invited Sen. Christopher S. "Kit" Bond, R-Missouri.

Bullard acknowledged that hosting a live cable TV show in his bank's lobby might be considered an unusual public outreach for a Federal Reserve district chief, but he said the "experiment" went fairly well.

"Part of the idea, was to try to showcase the Eighth Federal Reserve District as best as we could within the constraints," Bullard said. "You can get a feel for how these businesses are running, how things are going for them, how the economy is performing.''

In its advance publicity, CNBC ballyhooed the fact that it would be the first time that a Fed bank president would be reacting "live" to job numbers. Bullard offered a measured response on-air to the news from the Labor Department that the nation's unemployment rate remained at 9.6 percent in September.

Although the economy suffered a net loss of 95,000 jobs in September, Bullard noted that the private sector had added 64,000 jobs. He called it a key factor and added that he would want to look at more detailed data in the report.

During an interview after the show, Bullard said that instant analysis is important to people who trade in the markets, but it is not the way of the Fed.

"We don't have to do that; we're not trading,'' he said. "But we do have to assess the data and come back with a thoughtful policy later on.''

The Eighth District includes eastern Missouri, southern Illinois, Arkansas and parts of Mississippi, Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee. Representing district businesses were Andrew Taylor, chairman and CEO of Enterprise Rent-A-Car; James Weddle, CEO of Edward Jones; Ronald Kruszewski, chairman and CEO of Stifel, Nicolaus & Co.; Robert Jones, president and CEO of Old National Bancorp.; and Fred Smith, chairman and CEO of FedEx.

Kruszewski and Jones voiced concerns over the uncertainties facing small businesses in the district and how those worries will continue to hamper economic recovery.

Taylor, on the other hand, offered the day's good news: that business and leisure travel are both on the rise, and that his company is hiring.

"My message is that things are far better than they were six months ago,'' Taylor said, as sipped a cup of coffee before his 6 a.m. appearance on the show.

Taylor credited Bullard for his continued interest in "taking the pulse" of businesses and thought it was a great idea to host "Squawk Box" at the bank.

"It's a positive thing for St. Louis,'' he said.

Bond echoed the sentiment, adding that he always encourages folks from the East and West coasts to visit "the real world where we raise the crops and do the work."

"This is almost as good as having a playoff here,'' Bond joked before his curtain call.

Liesman noted that Bullard has been accessible to the public and the news media since assuming the presidency of the St. Louis Fed in April 2008 -- and that he has been outspoken about the direction Fed policy should take.

"He spoke up on where the Fed needed to go before the Fed was really talking about it,'' Liesman said.

Bullard said that while the risk of a double-dip recession appears to have receded, it is clear that economic growth has slowed. He acknowledged that the Fed will face a difficult decision when it meets next month to discuss whether -- or how -- to further stimulate the economy.

He said he understands the impatience of Americans.

"If you worry about the economy all day every day like we do, nobody's happy -- and we're keenly aware that no one's happy, but all you can do is design the best policy you can,'' he said. "Policy can only do so much. It can only affect the economy a little bit on the margin. At the end of the day, it's really the economy itself that naturally recovers and booms and busts, and I think a lot of business people today made comments like that. Businesses are the ones who have to invest and hire people, and they're not going to do it unless they think that they can sell more product in the future, introduce new products.''

Bullard acknowledges that there has always been a share of Americans who distrust the Fed, and he believes that educating the public about monetary policy is a way to address those concerns.

"If you look at the Fed as an organization -- to allow that kind of distrust to exist out there and not be trying to do something about it, that's not really a very good way to operate,'' he said. "To the extent that we can find ways to demystify the Fed we'll be a better organization. And I also think that our policies will be more effective if they're better understood in the private sector.''

That said, the bank's security officers were keeping a careful eye on the comings and goings Friday morning, and the activity was limited to the lobby.

Bullard laughed that he had wanted to tell Liesman during the show, " 'You're in the bank, but just barely in the front door.' ''

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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