6 economists on why Ron Paul’s Fed audit idea is wrong
I asked a half dozen economists who are very concerned about Federal Reserve independence what they thought about Rep. Ron Paul’s bill to audit the Fed. This was my specific question: “Given that Congress can already grill the Fed chairman during Humphrey-Hawkins (and occasional other congressional appearances), how would a GAO audit really threaten Fed independence in practical terms?”
Here is what they told me:
The GAO audit proposal is from Ron Paul, who has advocated abolishing the Fed and returning to the gold standard. Maybe people think that this is his foot in the door, a first step in the plan. When King Louis 16 called for a meeting of the Estates General in France, it led to a chain of events that resulted in his beheading!
My view is that there is a major difference between general economic questions from Congress to a Fed that isn’t open to a GAO audit and that doesn’t get its budget from Congress, versus a detailed audit by the GAO, which would create an explicit Congressional assessment of Fed operating procedures. An important reason why so many economists argue for independence is because there is substantial cross-country evidence that Central Banks which are more closely tied to the legislature have much higher inflation rates than in highly independent Central Banks. I do think Congress should be able to ask questions of the Fed during regular testimony, and Chairman Bernanke has certainly done more than his predecessors to explain what the Fed is doing and why.
My own concern is not about a specific step such as a proposed audit but rather is a response to what I see as a changing political climate in which I fear it will be more difficult for the Fed to withstand pressure to monetize the deficit.
You ask, why should we be concerned about an audit if we’re not concerned about Congress grilling representatives of the Fed? My answer is, I am concerned about the manner in which Congress has been grilling representatives of the Fed.
An audit suggests that they can force them to supply all the background information in real time that goes into a decision and presumably compel all members of the FOMC to share their thinking on any issue in real time. This information is disclosed after 5 years, with good reason.
The spirit of the Paul bill seems to be that having FOMC meetings live on C-SPAN would be best way to make monetary policy. That would be a disaster. (Akin not just to having Supreme Court arguments on TV but also the process of them writing the decisions being televised.)
You want people to be able to change their mind and to be able to vigorously debate all sides of an issue. If you put all this in public and subject to immediate second guessing it will shut down the give and take that is critical to reaching good decisions.
The level of intrusiveness of the GAO would surely be significantly greater — indeed, there would be no point to this proposal, given Humphrey-Hawkins, if it were not the intention of the bill’s proponents to exert Congressional control of monetary policy decisions in a way that the Humphrey-Hawkins testimony alone does not allow them to.
It is important to remember that the GAO already has the authority to audit the Fed, and does, except that the bill giving the GAO this authority in 1978 specifically excluded certain aspects of the Fed’s activities from GAO audits — essentially, decisions about monetary policy. The only purpose of the new bill is therefore to decrease the Fed’s independence with regard to monetary policy decisions.
Considerable historical experience suggests that political interference with monetary policy decisions can lead to regrettable outcomes — which is why Congress itself decided to forswear such interference. The dangers are especially great at a moment like the present one, when the prospect of large government deficits for years to come could easily make short-sighted decisions to use monetary policy to facilitate the financing of those deficits all too tempting. It is ironic that many of the proponents of reining in the Fed claim that their concern is preventing the Fed from further weakening the value of the currency, when the opposite would almost certainly be the consequence of their bill if passed.
Michael Feroli, JPMorgan
That’s a fair question. At H-H the Chairman is accountable for the Fed’s decisions. But I do think there is a distinction between asking questions and having all the conversations audited. For one, that could stifle the openness of the debate: to take an example, the Chairman always has to dance around the issue of NAIRU because it can be misperceived by economically illiterate members of Congress as meaning the Fed wants to engineer a certain amount of unemployment.
With audited conversations, the debate could become stilted. I think a GAO audit would also risk appearing as an official verdict on Fed decisions, as opposed to twenty different Congressmen questioning the Fed, which is much more clearly the opinions of some politicians. Finally, even if the step isn’t a major one, it’s a move in the wrong direction: if the markets and foreign investors perceive it that way, it could immediately push up borrowing costs even if theaudit are only a symbolic increasing of Congressional oversight of monetary policy.