Tag Archives: Federal Reserve

“A Process That Only We Fully Understand”

By James Kwak

Bernie Sanders’s “audit the Fed” amendment, which expands the ability of the Government Accountability Office to review Federal Reserve operations, seems to be gaining some momentum. Opponents, including the Obama administration and Fed chair Ben Bernanke, are mounting a defensive effort. There are two main arguments that I have heard.

The first is that publicizing which banks take advantage of Fed lending facilities will stigmatize those banks and could increase panic in the midst of a financial crisis. I’m not particularly convinced by this argument, since most supporters of the amendment are fine with releasing such information with a delay. Section 1152(a)(2) of the amendment eliminates the provision in 31 U.S.C. 714(b) that shields from audit monetary policy decision-making and financial transactions by Federal Reserve banks, but replaces it with this:

“Audits of the Federal Reserve Board and Federal reserve banks shall not include unreleased transcripts or minutes of meetings of the Board of Governors or of the Federal Open Market Committee. To the extent that an audit deals with individual market actions, records related to such actions shall only be released by the Comptroller General after 180 days have elapsed following the effective date of such actions.”

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The Importance of Donald Kohn*

By James Kwak

Donald Kohn recently announced that he is resigning as vice chair of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, after forty years in the Federal Reserve system, most of it in Washington. Articles about Kohn have generally been positive, like this one in The Wall Street Journal. The picture you get is of a dedicated, competent civil servant who has been a crucial player, primarily behind the scenes, in the operation of the Fed.

It’s a bit interesting that Kohn is generally getting the soft touch given that he was the right-hand man of both Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke. Here are some passages from the WSJ article:

“‘Don was my first mentor at the Fed,’ Mr. Greenspan says. Mr. Kohn told Mr. Greenspan how to run his first Federal Open Market Committee meeting, the forum at which the Fed sets interest rates. He became one of Mr. Greenspan’s closest advisers and defender of Mr. Greenspan’s policies.”

“Mr. Kohn has spent the past 18 months helping to remake the central bank on the fly as Chairman Ben Bernanke’s loyal No. 2 and primary troubleshooter.”

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Fed Chair as Confidence Man

I’m not the one saying it–that would be Robert Samuelson, columnist for Newsweek and the Washington Post. The sole point of Samuelson’s recent opinion piece is that Ben Bernanke’s job is to increase confidence.

Like much but not all error, there is a grain of truth to this point. Thanks to John Maynard Keynes (whom Samuelson cites), George Akerlof, Robert Shiller, and any number of economics experiments, we know that confidence has an effect on behavior and hence on the economy. Too much overconfidence can fuel a bubble and too much pessimism can exacerbate a slowdown.

But to leap from there to the conclusion that the job of the chair of the Federal Reserve is to increase confidence–“Ben Bernanke has, or ought to have, a very simple agenda: improve confidence”–is just silly.

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Paul Krugman for Fed Chair: “Crazy”

Paul Krugman says that Simon’s idea that he should be chair of the Fed is “crazy.” Krugman’s point is either that he wouldn’t be confirmed or that he wouldn’t be able to bring the Open Market Committee along. Maybe he’s right about the former; a Republican filibuster does seem reasonably likely.

I don’t think he’s right about the latter; or, more precisely, I don’t think it matters. The FOMC is, on paper, a democratic body: they vote. There is a tradition that the votes are generally unanimous because of the perceived importance of demonstrating consensus. I don’t know how old this tradition is; it was certainly in place under Greenspan. But everyone knows that the members of the FOMC disagree about many things; that’s why the various bank president members go around giving speeches objecting (not in so many words) to the FOMC’s decisions. Given that we all know there are debates involved, how important is this fiction of consensus?

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My Last Post on Ben Bernanke

His confirmation, that is. I summarized most of my position in Foreign Policy, which asked me to lay out the anti-confirmation argument. My reasons overlap with Simon’s but are not identical–I think Simon worries about cheap money and asset bubbles more than I do. I was originally not particularly motivated by the anti-Bernanke campaign, because I didn’t think Obama would appoint anyone better, but as Russ pointed out, whether Bernanke should be confirmed and what the alternative is are two separate questions.

Whom would I pick? I certainly don’t know the candidates well enough to make a good choice. But the first thing I would say is that the Federal Reserve chair does not need to be Superman. The Federal Reserve Board of Governors is a board, and while the chair is important, he or she should really be the first among equals. You want someone who will push the Board in a certain direction, but the chair can draw on the experience and skills of the other board members and the staff, who are technically very competent. The idea that the chair must be Superman seems to be a product of the Greenspan era, and we project it back onto Volcker because of his success in fighting inflation in the early 1980s. And it’s a bad idea, just like searching for a savior CEO. In this context, I think it’s limiting to insist that the nominee have experience on the board, or have government experience, or be a prominent academic, or anything in particular.

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Bernanke, Manager

There’s a platitude repeated by most CEOs that their main job is not anything so mundane as making decisions, but “mentoring and supporting people” or something like that. Most of the CEOs who repeat this are mediocre at best at mentoring or supporting people, since the key people for any CEO are not the people who work for him or her, but the members of the board of directors. But the truism that is still true is that when you are head of a large organization, you can’t do everything yourself, and your real impact is made through the people you hire, promote, and don’t fire.

In October, Ben Bernanke named Patrick Parkinson director of the Division of Bank Supervision and Regulation. Who is Patrick Parkinson?

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No to Bernanke

The American Economics Association is meeting in Atlanta, where Simon says it is frigid. I went to an early-January conference in Atlanta once. There was a quarter-inch of snow, the roads turned to ice, and everything closed. All flights were canceled, so I and some friends ended up taking the train to Washington, DC, which had gotten two feet of snow, and eventually to New York.

Paul Krugman’s speaking notes are here. Ben Bernanke’s are here.

Bernanke’s speech is largely a defense of the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy in the past decade, and therefore of the old Greenspan Doctrine dating back to the 1996 “irrational exuberance” speech–the idea that monetary policy is not the right tool for fighting bubbles. The Fed has gotten a lot of criticism saying that cheap money earlier this decade created the housing bubble, and I think it certainly played a role.

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