The Bernanke confirmation hearing should be a great show, especially after BB’s “speaking truth to power” WaPo op-ed where he went all Michale Corleone on Fed critics: “Senator? You can have my answer now, if you like. My final offer is this: nothing. Not even the Fed audit bill, which I would appreciate if you would kill personally.” Former Feddies are split on whether that was the right move or if he should have been more conciliatory ….
Politics and policy from inside Washington
Ron “End the Fed” Paul:
If you want to be a strict constitutionalist, there’s a lot more defense of having Congress involved with defending the value of the currency than delivering this responsibility over to the Fed.
Me: Keep in mind that there are in folks in Congress, such as Barney Frank, who would like to depower the Fed bank presidents because they worry too much about inflation. Mend it, don’t end it!
When you’re a nation getting ready to borrow $10 trillion or more over the next decade, you don’t want markets questioning your central bank’s commitment to controlling inflation.
But Congress continues to risk just such a scenario, whether through aggressively questioning Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke or pushing a bill to audit Fed monetary policy.
Now Representative Barney Frank, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, has suggested curbing the authority of the 12 Fed regional bank presidents.
As Frank sees things, monetary policy should not be influenced by “inappropriately placed private businessmen — or women, occasionally — picked by other private businessmen, and occasionally women.”
Drill down a bit and it’s clear that what really bugs Frank is not so much that regional bank presidents are selected by a nine-person panel, six of whom are elected by bankers. He just thinks they’re too hawkish.
Frank even commissioned and publicized a study that found that 97 percent of the hawkish dissents at Federal Open Market Committee meetings during the past decade were from the regional bank presidents.
Of course, higher rates would have been a good thing, given that the Fed’s extraordinarily easy monetary policy was a huge contributor to the financial crisis. And going forward, the Fed will face the economically and politically challenging task of withdrawing monetary stimulus when economic growth may well be sluggish and unemployment high.
But such medicine may be necessary to prevent an inflation outbreak. Congressional threats and bullying will make a hard job even more arduous.
Moreover, one reason the Fed has a decentralized structure is because of historic concerns about monetary policy serving only Washington and Wall Street.
Yet citizen concerns about the concentration of financial power are as alive today as they were in 1913 at the Fed’s creation. Monetary policy set solely by a presidentially-appointed and Senate-confirmed Board of Governors should certainly set off alarm bells with bond vigilantes concerned that Washington may try to inflate its way out of its debt problems.
If Congress wants to look at how the Fed conducts its business, better to focus on better ways to make monetary policy reflect forward-looking market gauges such as commodity prices rather than the unemployment rate or output.
Ultimately, though, the Fed’s problem isn’t too much influence from bankers in Kansas City or Atlanta or Chicago. It’s too much influence from politicians in Washington.
First of all, thanks to my good friend Stan Collender over at the Capital Gains and Games blog who has jumped to my defense (and that of Bruce Bartlett) vs. the misguided Ron Paul supporters who interpret any criticism of the congressman’s ideas as proof of membership of some global conspiracy.
You know, it is possible to think both a) overly easy monetary policy was a contributing factor in the economic crisis, and b) Fed actions helped prevent the recession from being worse than it was. And as far as the audit bill goes, letting Congress have greater influence on monetary policy would only result in a Fed that was less vigilant about inflation.
Better they focus their efforts nudging the Fed toward policies based in forward-looking market metrics as opposed to backward-looking economic indicators like the unemployment rate. But their dime, their dance floor.
If not for unprecedented actions by the Ben Bernanke-led Federal Reserve, the United States economy might be mired in a depression.
Yet the Fed finds itself on the defensive on Capitol Hill. There was its general counsel, Scott Alvarez, pleading last week to the House Financial Services Committee to reject attempts to expand Government Accountability Office audits of the Fed. Already, the GAO reviews the central bank’s supervisory and regulatory functions. But a bill introduced by Representative Ron “End the Fed” Paul, a Texas Republican, would also subject monetary policy and discount window operation to GAO audits. The bill has nearly 300 co-sponsors and as well as conceptual approval by Barney Frank, chairman of the committee.
The Fed views these expanded audits as threats to its independence from political pressure. As Alvarez put it, “These concerns likely would increase inflation fears and market interest rates and, ultimately, damage economic stability and job creation.”
For instance, when it comes time for the Fed to start withdrawing monetary stimulus from the economy despite continuing high unemployment, the last thing it will need is haranguing from Capitol Hill that it’s moving too fast, too soon.
And if the Fed becomes the regulator of systemically important financially institutions, as the White House advocates, it’s easy to imagine how the central bank would be subject to even more intense and frequent grilling from an emboldened Congress.
Now the move for expanded Fed audits results from both the Fed’s unprecedented efforts to end the financial crisis and its regulatory failures that contributed the financial crisis. The audit bill should be a wakeup call to the central bank that the more it gets involved in the regulatory process, the great future scrutiny from a skeptical Capitol Hill.
And it’s not just Congress. World Bank President Robert Zoellick says that after reviewing the Fed’s regulatory performance, he’s concluded that it’s a bad idea to “vest the independent and powerful technocrats at the Federal Reserve with more authority.”
Past regulatory failures have already undercut confidence in the Fed – “technocrats” is hardly a compliment — and breaking new regulatory ground in the field of systemic risk increases the chances for further erosion. As it is, the Fed is already buckling to congressional pressure. Alvarez told the committee that the Fed would be “happy to work” with lawmakers on ways to release names of companies that borrow from the central bank, perhaps after a period of time.
Not only should Congress reject the idea of expanded Fed audits, it should reject the idea of expanding the Fed’s role as regulator. If need be, create a new regulatory agency or council. Let Team Bernanke focus on executing its stimulus exit strategy and strengthening its reputation as an inflation fighter.
Talk about a phenomenally bad idea. According to the WSJ:
Policies that set the pay for tens of thousands of bank employees nationwide would require approval from the Federal Reserve as part of a far-reaching proposal to rein in risk-taking at financial institutions. … Under the proposal, the Fed could reject any compensation policies it believes encourage bank employees — from chief executives, to traders, to loan officers — to take too much risk. Bureaucrats wouldn’t set the pay of individuals, but would review and, if necessary, amend each bank’s salary and bonus policies to make sure they don’t create harmful incentives.
Me: Team Obama wants the Fed to be the super-regulator of the financial system. Sen. Chris “I have no confidence in the Fed” Dodd, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, would prefer a new, separate entity. A now here we have a plan that would see the Fed doing the kind of thing a super-regulator might do. It is like the Fed is saying, “Hey, we know we dropped the ball before. We get it. Now we are getting tough. Trust us.” And don’t ignore the fact that the guy pushing this is Daniel Tarullo, a Fed governor and Obama economic adviser. This is like a joint Fed-WH operation. Also don’t forget that this is coming right before the G-20 meeting where there are expected to be calls to get tough on banker pay. So one could view this as a PR ploy by a WH that is less enthused about pay restrictions than Europe.
Of course, this is a lousy idea. Banker pay didn’t cause the financial crisis. The government should not be micromanaging private-sector compensation. Also, the more the Fed is involved in the regulatory process, the more it is open to political scrutiny. Yves Smith seems to think this will tamp down support for Ron Paul’s Fed audit bill. Actually, I think this increases support for the bill since the more powerful the Fed seems, the greater the attractiveness of increased oversight and congressional meddling.
I have taken a lot of heat about my coverage of Ron Paul’s idea to audit the Federal Reserve. I would love to do a piece on economists in favor of the bill. So I am looking for names. Now these have to be professional economists, people making a living from teaching or consulting. No self-taugt experts. Please leave names in the comment section below. And here is a bit from the good doctor himself on his bill:
The big guns have lined up against HR 1207, the bill to audit the Federal Reserve. What is it that they are so concerned about? What information are they hiding from the American people? The screed is: transparency is okay except for those things they don’t want to be transparent.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, argues that HR 1207, the legislation to audit the Federal Reserve, would politicize monetary policy. He claims that monetary policy must remain independent, that is; secret. He ignores history because chairmen of the Federal Reserve in the past, especially when up for reappointment, do their best to accommodate the president with politically driven low interest rates and a bubble economy.
Bernanke argues that the knowledge that their discussions and decisions will one day be scrutinized will compromise the freedom of the Open Market Committee to pursue sound policy. If it is sound and honest and serves no special interest, what’s the problem?
He claims that HR 1207 would give power to Congress to affect monetary policy. He dreamt this up to instill fear, an old statist trick to justify government power. HR 1207 does nothing of the sort. He suggested that the day after an FOMC meeting, Congress could send in the GAO to demand an audit of everything said and done. This is hardly the case. The FOMC function under HR 1207 would not change.
The detailed transcripts of the FOMC meetings are released every 5 years, so why would this be so different and what is it that they don’t want the American people to know? Is there something about the transcripts that need to be kept secret, or are the transcripts actually not verbatim?
Fed sycophants argue that an audit would destroy the financial markets’ faith in the Fed. They say this in the midst of the greatest financial crisis in history brought on by none other than the Federal Reserve. In fact, Chairman Bernanke stated on November 14th 2007, “A considerable amount of evidence indicates that Central Bank transparency increases the effectiveness of monetary policy and enhances economic and financial performance”.
They also argue that an audit would hurt the value of the U.S. dollar. In fact, the Fed, in less than a 100 years of its existence, has reduced the value of the 1914 dollar by 96%.
They claim HR 1207 would raise interest rates. How could it? The Fed sets interest rates and the bill doesn’t interfere with monetary policy. Congress would have no say in the matter and besides, Congress likes low interest rates.
It is argued that the Fed wouldn’t be free to raise interest rates if they thought it necessary. But Bernanke has already assured the Congress that rates are going to stay low for the foreseeable future. And again, this bill does nothing to allow Congress to interfere with interest rate setting.
Fed supporters claim that they want to protect the public’s interest with their secrecy. But the banks and Wall Streets are the opponents of HR 1207, and the people are for it. Just who best represents the public’s interest?
The real question is: why are Wall Street and the Fed so hysterically opposed to HR 1207? Just what information are they so anxious to keep secret? Only an audit of the Federal Reserve will answer these questions.
This bit from the WSJ‘s interview with John McCain caught my eye:
“You have no idea the pressure I was under,” he says. “I remember being on the phone with President Bush, Vice President Cheney, the Treasury secretary and [Fed Chairman Ben] Bernanke. They assure me the world financial system is going to collapse if I don’t vote for the bill. So I do the impetuous and rash thing by saying, look, I have got to go back to Washington and see how I can help. And by the way, so did Obama—but it was McCain that was the impetuous one. Obama came back to Washington.” Mr. McCain grumbles, “He was at the White House with me. But he wasn’t impetuous.”
Me: I can tell you that Ben Bernanke is pitching a line to key congressional members in private about Ron Paul’s Fed audit bill that is not too dissimilar to what he told Congress back in the fall of 2008. Except back then he was saying failure to pass TARP would kill the economy. Today, it is the passage of a bill that would kill the economy, the Fed chairman says.
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.
I just got this email from an economist with strong libertarian leanings who also thinks that Ron Paul’s plan to audit the Fed is a bad, bad idea:
Congress delegating its monetary authority to the Fed is the only feasible approach. Opening the door to giving 535 politicians the authority to influence policy is a recipe for disaster. Sure a price rule would be great, and so would peace everlasting. It ain’t gonna happen. The most you can realistically ask for is to have policy conducted by people who get it right more than wrong. It’s an imperfect resolution, but we live in an imperfect world.
Me: Again, if don’t like monetary policy under Bernanke, would you like it any better under Pelosi and Reid? If you want monetary policy linked to market indicators, fine. But make that case directly. The Fed audit would only spook the markets, and with good reason. Unless, of course, you expect a Fed audit to reveal a worldwide conspiracy like this one from the film I Married an Axe Murderer:
Stuart Mackenzie: Well, it’s a well known fact, Sonny Jim, that there’s a secret society of the five wealthiest people in the world, known as The Pentavirate, who run everything in the world, including the newspapers, and meet tri-annually at a secret country mansion in Colorado, known as The Meadows.
Tony Giardino: So who’s in this Pentavirate?
Stuart Mackenzie: The Queen, The Vatican, The Gettys, The Rothschilds, *and* Colonel Sanders before he went t-ts up. Oh, I hated the Colonel with is wee *beady* eyes, and that smug look on his face. “Oh, you’re gonna buy my chicken! Ohhhhh!”
Charlie Mackenzie: Dad, how can you hate “The Colonel”?
Stuart Mackenzie: Because he puts an addictive chemical in his chicken that makes ya crave it fortnightly, smart-ss!