Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

January 28, 2014

Reforming the Fed

By David Reiss

Peter Conti-Brown and Simon Johnson posted their policy brief, Governing the Federal Reserve System after the Dodd-Frank Act, on SSRN (also on the Peterson Institute for International Economics website). I have said before that the Fed is a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” and I stand by that characterization. This policy brief is very helpful, however, in identifying the legal structure of the Federal Reserve System as well as the practical constraints and political forces that affect the workings of that legal structure.

The authors write that by statute, the chair of the Fed

decides almost nothing herself: The Federal Reserve System is supervised by a Board of seven presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed governors, of whom the chair is but one. In practice, the chair has frequently had a disproportionate influence on the monetary policy agenda and also the potential to predominate on regulatory matters—working closely with the Fed Board’s senior staff. Even so, for the most significant decisions, the Board must vote, and the chair must rely on the votes of the other six governors (for Board matters) and in addition, on a rotating basis, the votes of five of the twelve Reserve Bank presidents (for monetary policy). On regulation and supervision issues, the chair can do little of consequence without the support of at least three other governors. (1)

The brief goes on to document other aspects of the Fed’s organizational structure and the practical politics of Fed decisionmaking. For those of us who have a hard time parsing how the Fed acts, this is a useful document.

The brief also argues for a new approach to Fed governance:

The Fed chair is arguably the most important economic appointment any president makes. After the crises, new statute, and bold decisions of recent years, this job has become even more important.

During its first 100 years of existence, the position of Fed chair has risen to exercise great potential power. By statute, an appointee can remain in office 20 years or more. A perceived “maestro” effect in which insiders and outsiders are discouraged from challenging the chair is no longer a model with broad appeal, if it ever was.

The Board of Governors could provide an effective counterweight to the chair. Indeed, such a counterweight is what Congress intended by requiring presidential appointment and Senate confirmation of the entire Board. In order to break the tradition of a chair-dominated board, governors need sufficient expertise and experience to engage with and in some instances counteract the chair and Fed staff.

A president’s choice for Fed chair matters enormously, but the choice for members of the Board also matters a great deal. Monetary policy remains a crucial criterion but not at the exclusion of regulatory policy. The Board is second to none—in the nation and indeed arguably in the world—in its responsibility for regulatory oversight over the financial system. The president, members of the Senate, and the general public ignore these considerations at significant peril to the financial system and the economy. (9)

The brief presents a powerful alternative to business as usual at the Fed.  Hopefully, it will gain some traction.

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