In case you needed any more evidence that top policymakers are divorced both from reality and from understanding the consequences of their actions, witness Federal Reserve Board Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer’s interview today, in which he stated that “we had a financial crisis which was caused by behavior in the banking and other parts of the financial system and it did enormous damage to this economy.” Sorry, but it wasn’t bad actors in the banking system that caused the financial crisis. The Federal Reserve System was pumping money into the economy as fast as it could, pushing interest rates too low for too long and encouraging excessive risk-taking. Government housing policies were pushing for higher and higher homeownership rates, spurring lenders to reduce their lending standards to meet the government’s targets. And then once the crisis hit the Fed and the federal government tried to wipe their hands of the whole mess and blame everything on a few bad actors. That’s why Dodd-Frank and the whole mess of post-crisis regulations that have come down the pike completely missed the mark. Not only WILL they do nothing to stop a future crisis, they CAN do nothing to stop a future crisis because they misdiagnosed the cause. Dodd-Frank was just an attempt to use the crisis to force through a bevy of legislation that otherwise would have floundered in Congress for years. The worst part of it is that even after everyone will have realized that the bill was a complete flop, it will remain on the books for decades.
Fed Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer today said that weak growth in the US economy in the first quarter is likely only temporary, and that the Fed could continue on with its planned rate hikes. Time will tell whether he’s right or wrong, but there is so much evidence out there that the economy is dependent on central bank money printing for its continued health that we can’t help but think that Fischer really isn’t in tune with what’s going on. Once the central bank stock and bond purchases wind down, stock markets will lose their luster, markets will begin to panic, and in the absence of any further quantitative easing the malinvestments that have been propagated through a decade of easy money will eventually be brought to light. Fischer, like most economists of the past few decades, doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions because of his failure to believe the teachings of Austrian Business Cycle Theory. That disbelief is irrelevant, however, and the consequences of the Fed’s decisions will occur regardless. When they do, let this post be a reminder that the Vice Chairman of the most powerful central bank in the world didn’t see the crisis coming.
With the announcement earlier this week that Federal Reserve Board of Governors member Daniel Tarullo will resign effective April 5, 2017, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) will likely find itself in a highly unusual situation come April, one in which the regional Federal Reserve Bank Presidents on the FOMC outnumber the members of the Board of Governors. The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System has been operating with two vacancies for several years, following the resignations of Jeremy Stein and Sarah Bloom Raskin in 2014, and Tarullo’s resignation will bring that to three open positions.
Let’s recall the structure of the Fed’s Board of Governors. Each of the seven governors is appointed to a 14-year term, with each term beginning on February 1st in an even-numbered year every two years and expiring 14 years later on January 31st. So a new term began on February 1, 2016, another will begin on February 1, 2018, another on February 1, 2020, etc. The two current open terms are the one that began in 2016 and the one that will begin in 2018. Tarullo’s term expires January 31, 2022. A governor appointed to a full term may not be reappointed, but a governor appointed to fill the remainder of an unexpired term may be reappointed for another full term.
The two current openings mean that President Trump could appoint someone to the current unexpired term that expires January 31, 2018, then reappoint that person to a full term that expires January 31, 2032. He could also appoint someone to the unexpired term that began February 1, 2016 that expires January 31, 2030, and that person could then be reappointed in 2030 until 2044. With Tarullo’s resignation, he could appoint someone to fill that unexpired term and, if he wins re-election in 2020, reappoint that person to serve until 2036. Finally, Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer’s term expires January 31, 2020, giving President Trump a fourth appointment opportunity until 2034. And, since Chairman Janet Yellen’s term as chairman expires in 2018 (her Board position expires in 2024), President Trump will also get to pick a new chairman next year.
As expected, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) raised its target federal funds rate to 0.50-0.75%. There wasn’t much substantive change in the language of the statement. Economic activity was judged to be expanding at a moderate pace, with a declining unemployment rate. Measures of inflation were said to have “moved up considerably” but still remain low, which seems to be contradictory. All FOMC members voted in favor of raising the target federal funds rate at this meeting.
Looking forward to 2017, some media reports have touted that the Fed’s “dot plots” point to the potential for three rate hikes in 2017. That possibility has a few things working against it. First, the Fed is watching closely to see what other central banks are doing. If the European Central Bank, Bank of England, and Bank of Japan maintain loose monetary policy, the Fed will find it tough to raise rates unilaterally. Secondly, the FOMC membership is switching up again as it does every year. For those who are unfamiliar, here’s the Federal Reserve’s description of the FOMC:
The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) consists of twelve members–the seven members of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System; the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York; and four of the remaining eleven Reserve Bank presidents, who serve one-year terms on a rotating basis. The rotating seats are filled from the following four groups of Banks, one Bank president from each group: Boston, Philadelphia, and Richmond; Cleveland and Chicago; Atlanta, St. Louis, and Dallas; and Minneapolis, Kansas City, and San Francisco. Nonvoting Reserve Bank presidents attend the meetings of the Committee, participate in the discussions, and contribute to the Committee’s assessment of the economy and policy options.
Next year the four Federal Reserve Bank Presidents rotating onto the FOMC are: Charles Evans of Chicago, who has a dovish reputation; and Patrick Harker of Philadelphia, Robert Kaplan of Dallas, and Neel Kashkari of Minneapolis, all of whom are recently-hired and will be voting on the FOMC for the first time. Dallas and Philadelphia have reputations for being more hawkish, but it remains to be seen whether the new Presidents will maintain that reputation.
Federal Reserve Board Governor Lael Brainard’s campaign contributions are in the news today, as she recently maxed out her contributions to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. According to CNBC, Brainard is the only Federal Reserve Board Governor since 1990 to donate to a presidential campaign. While it isn’t illegal for Fed Governors to contribute to political campaigns, Fed officials have avoided making such contributions in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety and avoid compromising the Fed’s claims of political independence. The younger generation of officials, however, such as Brainard and newly-appointed Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari, have cut their teeth as political appointees. Both Brainard and Kashkari previously served as political appointees in the Treasury Department. As executive agencies are overtly political, so too are the appointees who serve in them, and they have brought that political attitude with them to the Fed.
While the Fed has always been a tool for the President to enact the monetary policy he wants, Fed officials have always tried to distance themselves publicly from the appearance of acting politically. With Kashkari’s actions in Minneapolis and now Brainard’s campaign contributions coming to light, that public facade of separation of policy and politics that the Fed has tried so hard to maintain is finally starting to crumble. The reality is that Fed officials are not dispassionate, apolitical actors above the fray, seeking only to work in the best interest of the country. They are appointees, and like any other appointees they serve those who appoint them. Once that realization sets in in Washington, perhaps Congress might finally take some steps to enact real oversight over the Federal Reserve.
On August 10, 1914, the Federal Reserve Board opened for business, as its first members took their oaths of office. The Federal Reserve Board as it was initially structured in the Federal Reserve Act passed on December 23, 1913 bears little resemblance to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors of today. The Federal Reserve Board as initially consisted of seven members, five of whom were appointed by the President, along with the Secretary of the Treasury and the Comptroller of the Currency. The Treasury Secretary acted as Chairman of the Board, with one of the five presidential appointees named as governor and another of the appointees named as vice governor. The Board held its meetings in the Treasury Building. It wasn’t until the mid-1930s that the structure of the Board changed significantly and began to take the form that we see today.
This week has seen a flurry of commentary on Audit the Fed, both from politicians and from Fed officials. We covered the opposition from Elizabeth Warren earlier, so now let’s look at what the Fed officials have to say. Leading the charge against Audit the Fed this week is retiring Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher. On Monday he said:
“I’ll be blunt: we are audited out the wazoo,” Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher said on Fox Business Network. “This (bill) is about interfering with the making of monetary policy. I respect the gentleman from Kentucky but he is wrong,” Fisher said of Senator Rand Paul, who backs the bill.
Shall we take a look at Fisher’s assertions?