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Originally published March 8, 2014 at 8:02 PM | Page modified March 9, 2014 at 10:14 AM

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S.F. Fed chief has insights for students, 49ers

San Francisco’s regional Fed chief has become a hot commodity at dinner parties; a coalition asks Starbucks to use organic milk only.


By Seattle Times business staff

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Ten years ago, before “quantitative easing” became a buzz phrase, John Williams enjoyed maybe too much anonymity.

At dinner parties, he’d introduce himself to other guests as a research director for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, and soon find himself standing alone, he recalled this past week.

Today, Williams is a hot commodity at dinner parties, even if only for heated discussions on federal monetary policy. In 2011, he became the San Francisco regional Fed’s president and CEO, replacing now-Fed Chair Janet Yellen.

Williams was in town Wednesday to give a speech on the Fed to more than 200 students at Seattle University’s Pigott Auditorium. The Fed 12th district, based in San Francisco, spans nine Western states, including Washington.

In an interview beforehand, Williams said Washington’s post-recession economy is recovering at a similar pace to the West overall. State officials had just reported that Washington’s unemployment rate fell in January to 6.4 percent from 6.7 percent a month earlier. The new data also showed Seattle-area joblessness dropping to 5.2 percent from 5.3 percent in December.

“California and Nevada are the ones still deepest in the hole. Those were the centers of the housing boom, bubble and crash, and they’re still struggling to get back to normal,” Williams said. “States like Utah, Idaho and Alaska basically have got back to normal levels.”

“Washington as a whole,” he added, “is in the middle there in terms of the recovery, reflecting the improvement in the U.S. economy.”

Williams’ hourlong presentation, which included a question-and-answer session, mostly covered what the Fed actually does or doesn’t do, with a smattering of jokes about the Seahawks-49ers rivalry.

“Does anyone not know who they are,” he asked the audience, pointing to two large photos of Yellen and her predecessor, former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke.

No hands went up, “which I think makes the point,” he said. “Whenever the Fed decides, or doesn’t decide to do something, it’s there in the newspaper, above the fold, main headline.”

Later, when the tables were turned, Williams was asked what keeps him up at night.

He acknowledged the Fed should have “thought ahead more” to the consequences of the housing bubble, and said he thinks about avoiding another financial crisis.

He also recalled the Seahawks’ 23-17 victory over his hometown 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, when Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman deflected a jump-ball throw in the end zone to seal a Super Bowl berth.

“Just throw the ball a little higher in the end zone,” Williams said with a wince, prompting laughter from the Seattle crowd.

— Amy Martinez: amartinez@seattletimes.com

Organic milk only, Starbucks urged

GMO Inside, a coalition of nonprofits that opposes making food out of genetically modified organisms, has asked Starbucks to serve only organic milk from cows fed non-GMO feed.

But is there enough organic milk to make every Starbucks latte organic?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture website, sales of organic-milk products were 2.2 billion pounds in 2012, or about 4 percent of total U.S. fluid milk sales.

Starbucks doesn’t disclose how much milk it uses. A 2007 Forbes story said the company used about 93 million gallons of milk, or about 800 million pounds.

Most would be used in the U.S., where it has the bulk of its stores. With about one-third more stores globally now than in 2007, the coffee giant undoubtedly uses more these days.

So the answer is — perhaps. Technically there might be enough organic milk in the U.S., but Starbucks’ gargantuan needs would distort a tiny market.

GMO Inside cites the example of sandwich chain Pret a Manger — but that involves just 335 shops worldwide. Starbucks has more than 20,000.

Then again, Starbucks has the clout to make more producers move toward organic, said Todd Larsen, corporate responsibility director at GMO Inside coalition member Green America.

“There’s enough supply for Starbucks to offer it as an option to all customers now, and if the company announces a plan to shift all its milk to organic over time, farmers will be able to meet the demand,” Larsen said in an emailed statement. After all, it did the same with hormone-free milk.

Starbucks said it is “always evaluating commercially viable sourcing options.”

Angel Gonzalez: agonzalez@seattletimes.com



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