This 9-minute podcast was released March 25, 2019.
From its start in payments to its current focus on economic education and community development, the Little Rock Branch has undergone a significant transformation in its first 100 years. Senior Vice President Robert Hopkins reflects on the Branch’s century of history.
Robert Hopkins: Good morning.
Hasenstab: Tell me a little bit about your role at the St. Louis Fed.
Hopkins: Well, it’s an eclectic job. I’m the regional executive down at our Little Rock Branch and have been there since 1995. And function there really centers around three main things for me: economic education, community development work and collecting anecdotes from business leaders across the state of Arkansas that filters into the monetary policy function here at the St. Louis Fed.
Hasenstab: About how many people work in Little Rock, and what kind of jobs do they do?
Hopkins: We’ve got just under 30 now. Historically, we’ve had a larger number than that when we were in the payments business. But, as we worked our way out of that and moved more to electronic payments processing, we shifted. And then we have a contingent of bank examination staff that’s also housed in our Little Rock office, and they comprise the vast majority of our staff.
Hasenstab: And they’re visiting banks regularly?
Hopkins: They are indeed. So the Fed on the supervision side has two broad responsibilities. One’s for safety and soundness for a financial institution, and then there’s consumer compliance laws that financial institutions have to adhere to, and we supervise banks for that. I have that responsibility for the Eighth District in addition to my branch responsibilities.
Hasenstab: Let’s talk a little bit more about the Little Rock Branch and how that ties into the Federal Reserve System as a whole. How did Little Rock get to have its own branch?
Hopkins: When the Fed was created, of our four offices—Memphis, Louisville and St. Louis [were the others]—we were the only office that didn’t throw our hat into the ring to become a Federal Reserve Bank. So St. Louis, I think it was a foregone conclusion, given the size and the economic powerhouse that it was in 1914 that they were going to be a Reserve Bank.
And so, once that was settled, then each Reserve Bank had the opportunity to add branches. And I think at that particular time, given the economic power of Little Rock in our particular region, we became a branch city along with Memphis and Louisville.
Hasenstab: Talk to me about monetary policy and how the Little Rock Branch plays into that.
Hopkins: When most folks think about the Federal Reserve, I think predominantly they think about monetary policy, our most important aspect of what we do. And our office, along with offices across the country, are tasked with understanding what’s going on in the economies of the markets that we serve. Main Street is what we’re interested in, trying to bring that message back to the head office presidents who serve on the Federal Open Market Committee that meet eight times a year.
So I have a board of directors made up of individuals from across the state of Arkansas, leaders of across the state of Arkansas, different geographies, different industries, that come to Little Rock eight times a year in advance of FOMC meetings, and they share their insights as to what’s going on right now with the economy in their neck of the woods. But also, we ask them to look around the corner what’s happening three, six months out.
Hasenstab: The Little Rock Branch is marking a milestone this year, its 100th anniversary since the branch opened. You’ve talked about this a little bit, how Little Rock came to be one of the three branches. What do you want to tell me about that milestone, 100 years?
Hopkins: What strikes me most is that I’ve been here for over a third of that, Maria, and which makes me old, but also has given me a front-row seat to see how things have changed. And things have changed a lot in the third of the time that I’ve been here. And certainly as I’ve gone back and looked at what happened at the inception of the branch, things have changed significantly, obviously, since then.
When I first took the job, we were a full-service operation, had a facility in downtown Little Rock processing payments predominantly—checks, cash, ACH, wire transfer. We had book entry securities activities going on at that time as well. So it was a round-the-clock operation, seven days a week, really. So it was a fun job, interesting job, challenging job—trying to improve the payments mechanism by moving things from paper, which was very expensive, to electronics. With Congress’s help, we were successful in accomplishing that around 2000.
At that point the Fed system had a decision to make. Do they continue to stay in these markets now that they have shrunk their payments processing? Or do they remove themselves from that?
And we decided that, you know, this is a large geography. Monetary policy is an important aspect of what we do. Being local and part of a community with the business leaders from across the Little Rock zone as we have for years was important to us. And so we decided to stay there. And we’ve redesigned what we’re working on and how we go about that. And I think we’ve continued to provide value to not only the St. Louis Fed, but the public at large.
Maria Hasenstab: A lot of changes, but probably still fun and interesting like you described it.
Robert Hopkins: Oh, it’s a great job. And the intellectual generosity of folks, both within the bank here and have been for years, and also with the Board of Directors and some of the other Advisory Council members that we have, it’s just tremendous. I learn something every single day.
Hasenstab: What do you envision for the next 100 years of the Little Rock Branch?
Hopkins: Well, I think the Fed will still be around. We’ll look a lot different than we do right now. Technology certainly has changed us over our first 100 years and I anticipate will change us over the next 100. We’ll have a role as the lender of last resort, and we’ll have wonderful people that are good public servants, which we’ve always had.
Hasenstab: You’ve touched upon this, but talk to me about the role of economic education there in Little Rock.
Hopkins: This is a function that we’ve had for quite some time, in fact I think for the majority of my career here. But we’ve expanded it over the last several decades under the leadership of Mary Suiter. And our main function here is to try to infuse as a wholesaler, schools in particular, K through 12, with curricula that teaches economics.
And, you know, there’s some personal finance aspect that goes along with what we do. But it’s mostly about economics and making choices. Not many school districts require economics, but economics touches every life across the country, no matter what your background or education is.
And understanding that well not only helps your individual, but their family, and certainly the community that they live in, and ultimately the nation. So I think it’s an important function that we have. We’ve got dedicated professionals that are teachers, so they understand what kind of curricula is effective in a classroom. And we have lots of folks that are going out and sharing the news.
Hasenstab: And, similarly, talk to me about the community development efforts.
Hopkins: This is one aspect of what the Fed does that’s focused on low- and moderate-income individuals and communities. It runs at some level from the Community Reinvestment Act that’s 40 years old last year which is designed to ensure that credit is being allocated fairly and broadly across the country.
We at the Federal Reserve are trying to work with financial institutions who we know very well as a regulator and supervisor and with community development entities across our footprint to try to find win-win solutions. So financial institutions are expected to make credit available across their assessment areas. But they have to do that in a safe and sound fashion.
That creates some friction that I think the Fed can step in as a neutral party and try to find some win-win solutions and show bankers how loans can be made and effectively made to low and moderate income areas to improve their lot, but also educate community groups on what it is that financial institutions are required to do when they are providing credit to individuals.
Hasenstab: Is there anything else you want our listeners to know about the St. Louis Fed’s Little Rock Branch?
Hopkins: The one thing that has struck me over my career with the Fed is the support that we have gotten from stakeholders and directors and Advisory Council members in particular that enable us to effectively do our jobs.
Without those folks willingly giving their time, talents and real effort to try to give us the information from Main Street to ensure that that message gets carried back to Washington D.C. when the policymakers are sitting around that table, so that all individuals across the country feel like they have a seat there. It just couldn’t happen without those folks doing that.
So I’m very appreciative of that. I’m always humbled that they are willing to serve. They’re public servants themselves when they’re coming in and doing that function, and they do it very, very well.
Hasenstab: Well, it sounds like a valuable collaboration.
Hopkins: It is indeed.
Hasenstab: Thank you so much for your time today, Robert.
Hopkins: Thanks for having me.
Hasenstab: To learn more about the Little Rock Branch of the St. Louis Fed, go to stlouisfed.org and click on Little Rock at the top of the page.