Brainard: Fed wants maximum employment, growth that is “sustainable”

U.S. Treasury Under Secretary for International Affairs Brainard delivers a speech in Moscow
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Treasury Under Secretary for International Affairs Lael Brainard delivers a speech in Moscow February 15, 2013. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

February 18, 2021

By Howard Schneider

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Federal Reserve’s emerging focus on climate change won’t lessen its focus on achieving maximum employment, Fed Governor Lael Brainard said on Thursday in response to questions about whether a transition away from carbon-based fuel will kill jobs.

The Fed will be focused on long-term risks of climate change but also how the transition to a less carbon-dependent economy “might affect our economic growth over the medium to long term,” Brainard said in comments to an Institute of International Finance summit on climate change.

“The focus on investments in a sustainable economy that are pro-growth, that are pro-jobs, those are the kinds of priorities that square very well with our overall framework, which is to ensure the economy is at maximum employment in a sustainable way,” she said.

Her remarks were focused on the need for financial firms and their supervisors, including at the Fed, to take more explicit account of the risks climate changes poses to industry business plans and portfolios, and to invest in the complex models and data analysis needed to do so.

But her comments on the transition toward a more climate-friendly economy also marked the second time in two weeks top Federal Reserve officials have signaled broad alignment with the Biden administration’s intent to put public investment and a green energy transition at the center of its plans.

Last week Fed Chair Jerome Powell equated the fight for full employment with past national efforts to win World War Two and land on the moon, noted the lapse of federal investment in basic research in recent years, and said there should be a “society-wide commitment” to move to full employment.

President Joe Biden has made climate policy a centerpiece with a goal of moving to a “net-zero carbon” economy within 30 years, a process he has said would boost “American innovation, American products, American labor.”

The Fed has no control over those sorts of policies, whether aimed at job creation, green energy, or both. But its commitment to holding down interest rates, and its signaling that the federal government has more capacity to borrow to repair the economy, could help clear the way for whatever plan the administration pursues.

Brainard was prompted on the jobs issue by IIF President Tim Adams, a native of the coal mining state of Kentucky who said the industry group’s own efforts to plan the transition to a low-carbon economy prompted “a lot of questions from my friends in West Virginia and Wyoming and Texas and Alaska really concerned about are you going to put millions of people out of work” in those energy-producing states.

The IIF, as a member of the U.S. Climate Finance Working Group, on Thursday published a set of guidelines for the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Climate change, from the acute risks of weather events like those pummeling Texas this week to the demands of investors for climate-friendly options, has become a key issue for the financial industry.

But efforts to tackle it may involve a massive transfer of capital and new regulatory initiatives to develop alternatives – a politically charged issue at play in realtime in Texas amid feuding over whether wind turbines or frozen natural gas pipelines are more to blame for the power collapse amid a freak winter storm.

Brainard said the Fed’s interest was to fulfill its mandate for maximum employment “as we also undertake the necessary investment to make sure that our economy transitions to a sustainable basis over the medium to long run.”

(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Andrea Ricci)