Life & Culture

Why we’re all now living on Janet’s planet


It is not a very seasonal gift. But, after months of meticulous planning and some hesitation, arguably the most powerful woman in the world set us all on a new course this week with a widely predicted raise in interest rates.

Janet Yellen, a diminutive 69-year-old with a shock of grey hair, makes no concession to age or fashion. In most Western societies, at this stage of life, many women might be thinking about travel, charitable work, improving their bridge game and spending more time with the grandchildren than making decisions that affect the prosperity of the world.

As chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, America's central bank, Brooklyn-born Yellen is responsible for setting US interest rates. What she decides for America and Wall Street affects not just US households but the rest of the globe, too. For the past decade, America's key interest rate has been anchored in the range, zero per cent to 0.25 per cent. In the aftermath of the ''Great Financial Crisis'' and the subsequent ''Great Recession'' the US and the rest of the world became hooked on what economists call cheap money.

Now that full employment has returned to the American economy, and the housing market, which was one of the key causes of the financial panic of 2007-09, is recovering, Yellen has decided the time is right for normalisation. She has begun cautiously raising rates by 0.25 percentage points and is expected to proceed gradually. There is no immediate hurry. US inflation, like that in Britain, is low - kept low by oil prices currently trading at, or close to, $35-a-barrel (against over $100-a-barrel 18-months ago). Wage inflation is modest so Yellen is thinking about future inflation - two or three years hence - not the present.

Yellen is known to be cautious. One colleague recalls that she is the kind of woman who likes to arrive at airports several hours before the gate closes rather than risk missing the plane. This, despite the fact that her status in American public life, as the top economic and financial figure, almost certainly means she could be whisked through special VIP channels to the aircraft.

It is an extraordinary fact that Yellen and her two predecessors at the Federal Reserve have been Jewish. The legendary Alan Greenspan, who is blamed by some for failing to spot the oncoming financial crisis in the early 2000s, also hailed from New York. And Yellen served as deputy at the Fed to Ben Bernanke, the scholar of the Great Depression, who is widely regarded as the person who saved the world from a repeat.

Bernanke was replaced by Yellen in 2014. President Barack Obama felt confident enough in recovery to substitute Bernanke, who had served in George W Bush's White House, with a Democrat who had served in his own.

The daughter of doctor and a teacher, Janet Louise Yellen was born in Brooklyn in 1946. At Hamilton High School in New York, she was described as the person ''most likely to succeed'' and spent her spare weekends studying maths at Columbia University.

In 1971, she received her PhD in economics from Yale after first gaining an undergraduate degree from Brown. At Yale, she fell under the influence of the Nobel Prize-winning economist, James Tobin, and another Nobel Prize winner, Joseph Stiglitz, who supervised her thesis. The former is famous among policy-makers for advocating the so called Tobin tax on financial transactions with the money raised used to fund development, a policy partially adopted by the European Commission.

After six years as an assistant professor at Harvard, Yellen left to join the Federal Reserve in 1977. It was there that she met fellow economist George A Akerlof over lunch and they married a year later.

The two worked together highlighting flaws in economic theory based around the concept that markets work efficiently. They reached the conclusion that governments and central banks, like the Federal Reserve, should adopt policies that improve people's lives. Akerlof went on to win the Nobel prize in economic science. Their son Robert teaches economics at the University of Warwick in Britain. One imagines conversation over the Friday night candles in the Akerlof-Yellen household might be a little heavier going than in most homes in Washington or North London.

Yellen is not unfamiliar to Britain, having spent the years 1978-80 teaching at the London School of Economics. She is remembered fondly there for her careful preparation of lectures and patience in explaining complex subjects in the classroom.

It is one thing teaching economics in the classroom but quite another to being the world's top policy-maker. Even though this week's rise in interest rates has been well telegraphed - and Yellen prepared the markets - the decision will have far-reaching consequences. It sends a signal to the world that the era of super low interest rates may be drawing to a close.

It will mean a divergence of policy between Washington and Frankfurt (where the European Central Bank is based) and the lack of co-ordination is seen by some as a huge risk to stability. Yellen has taken all steps possible to prepare markets and the world for what is a potentially epoch-making decision. The blue touch paper has been lit, and it could make for an explosive new year.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

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