The right kind of reform
America’s next president should modernise the Federal Reserve system
PERHAPS it was inevitable in the aftermath of the worst financial crisis in almost a century, but America is boiling over with schemes to remake the Federal Reserve. Some Republicans want the central bank’s monetary-policy decisions to be “audited” by the Government Accountability Office, an arm of Congress. Others wish to use a formula to put monetary policy on autopilot and to haul the chairman in front of Congress every time the Fed steps in. The most extreme sceptics peddle conspiracy theories about how the Fed “debases” the dollar. They propose abolishing the central bank entirely.
Any of these schemes would be disastrous—either because they would jeopardise the central bank’s independence, or because they would cast monetary policy adrift.
Fortunately, the likely presidential candidates have no desire to “end the Fed”. Donald Trump says he might replace Janet Yellen, the Fed’s chairman, with a Republican when her term ends.
That would be unwise, but hardly revolutionary. Hillary Clinton wants to change the rules about who sits on the boards of the 12 powerful regional banks in the Fed system.
She is right. The Fed is not broken, but it is anachronistic. The system of regional Feds gives commercial banks influence over their regulators and dishes out public money to their private shareholders. The next president and Congress should give it a thorough overhaul.
The Federal Reserve system, created in 1913, owes a lot to the efforts of Carter Glass, who gave his name to the more famous Glass-Steagall Act, which separated investment banking from the duller retail kind. Thanks to his efforts, the country has not one monetary authority but a network of regional banks overseen by a board of governors in Washington, DC.
Glass’s aim when founding the Fed was to avoid giving too much economic power to Washington bureaucrats. The regional banks would be like the states, while the board of governors would be like Congress. To placate bankers who wanted the government to stay out of their business, banks would themselves capitalise each regional Fed and appoint two-thirds of its directors. The directors would, in turn, elect a president who, on a rotating basis, would assume one of five voting seats on the FOMC, the committee that sets interest rates for the whole country. Such sops were necessary in part because, until 1980, membership of the Fed system was voluntary.
The sops are still being dished out today. The system provides sweetheart deals to banks, most of which earn a risk-free 6% annual dividend on their compulsory investments in the regional Feds. This is more than three times what the government currently pays for capital on the ten-year debt market. Although the dividend was recently cut for the 70 largest banks, roughly 1,900 smaller banks in the Fed system, which also own part of the regional Feds’ stock, continue to benefit. Banks holding shares issued before 1942 receive their dividends tax-free.
The most important job of a regional Fed is to oversee the banks in its district. As a result, Glass’s system comes perilously close to letting bankers serve as their own regulators—not so much a revolving door between Wall Street and government, as a shared executive suite. The bankers who sit on the boards of regional Feds are not directly responsible for regulation and they no longer vote for a regional Fed’s president, but banks appoint outside directors who do.
And bankers can take part in a vote to dismiss a regional-Fed president.
This is all the more worrying since political gridlock has given the regional Feds growing representation on the FOMC. The system is designed so that the Washington board of governors, which is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, has a majority.
But the White House has filled vacancies slowly, in part because of an unco-operative Senate—which in 2010, for instance, decided that Peter Diamond, a Nobel-prize-winning economist, was unqualified for the job.
Hence, for most of Barack Obama’s presidency, regional Feds have matched governors in voting power. This matters because banks tend to profit from higher interest rates. Regional-Fed presidents tend to be the most hawkish members of the FOMC, as their dissenting opinions suggest (see chart).
Amend the Fed
Some fear that any reform attempts would provide an opening for all those other barmy ideas.
That is not an idle worry. But private-sector involvement in the Fed arms the critics and conspiracy theorists.
It reinforces the corrosive notion that self-serving elites write economic policy. In the long run, reform would protect the Fed from undesirable meddling.