Warren blasts Yellen for endorsing very white, very male regional Fed presidents

June 21, 2016

  Around this time last year, as another white male took the reins at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, the Fed’s archaic and opaque system of choosing its regional presidents started to come under fire. At first the criticism was over the way the system appeared to favor insiders. Patrick Harker, at the time the new Philadelphia Fed President, had sat on the regional Fed board that was tasked with filling that position. Later that summer the Dallas Fed would name Robert Kaplan, who is also white, as its president despite the fact that he was a director at the executive search firm that that regional Fed board hired to find candidates. When the Minneapolis Fed named Neel Kashkari its president later in 2015, groups like the Fed Up Coalition pointed out that while he was the only non-white regional president, he, like Harker and Kaplan, had former ties to Goldman Sachs.

Since these presidents have rotating votes on U.S. interest rate policy, many saw the selections as a critical failure to reflect the country’s diversity of gender, race and background. As it stands, 11 of the 12 regional Fed presidents are white, 10 of them are male, and none are black or Latino. Fed Up, a network of community organizations and labor unions calling for changes to the central bank, also points out that there has never been a black regional president in the Fed’s 102-year history.

To be sure, the central bank was set up in 1913 in this decentralized way to check the power of the Washington-based Fed Board, whose seven governors are nominated by the U.S. President and confirmed by the Senate in public hearings and votes. The Fed presidents scattered around the country, meanwhile, are quietly chosen by their regional directors (usually corporate, industry and civic heads) and then, again with little or no public input or transparency, approved by the Fed governors after a series of private interviews with them in Washington. All 12 presidents had their terms extended earlier this year.

So the stage was set on Tuesday for Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat who some see as a potential running mate for U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, to make a point about diversity at the Fed while making things rather uncomfortable for Fed Chair Janet Yellen, who was testifying before the Senate Banking Committee – and who, it may be noted, is the first woman to lead the central bank:

Warren: “Does the lack of diversity among the regional Fed Presidents concern you?”

Yellen: “Yes, and I believe it is important to have a diverse group of policymakers who can bring different perspectives to bear. As you know, it’s the responsibility of the regional banks’ Class B and C directors to conduct a search and to identify candidates. The (Fed) Board reviews those candidates and we insist that the search be national and that every attempt be made to identify a diverse pool of candidates…”

Warren: “The Fed Board recently re-appointed each and every one of these presidents without any public debate or any public discussion about it. So the question I have is, if you’re concerned about this diversity issue, why didn’t you take (any) of these opportunities to say, ‘Enough is enough, let’s go back and see if we can find qualified regional Fed presidents who also contribute to the overall diversity of the Fed’s leadership’?”

Yellen: “We did undertake a thorough review of the re-appointments of the performances of the presidents. The Board of Governors has oversight of the reserve banks, there are annual meetings between the Board’s bank affairs committee and the leadership of those banks to review the performance of the presidents, and there were thorough reviews of…”

Warren: “But you’re telling me diversity is important and yet you signed off on all these folks without any public discussion about it. I appreciate your commitment to diversity and I have no doubt about it. I don’t question it. It just shows me that the selection process for regional Fed presidents is broken because the current process has not allowed you and the rest of the Board to address the persistent lack of diversity among the regional Fed presidents. I think that Congress should take a hard look at reforming the regional Fed selection process so that we can all benefit from a Fed leadership that reflects a broader array of both backgrounds and interests.”

As it happens, Clinton said last month that she, too, supports an ongoing push by Warren and other liberal members of Congress to exclude bankers from the regional Fed boards and to make the central bank more diverse.

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