Marketplace Scratch Pad

The Fed as a Temple

Scott Jagow Jul 17, 2009

William Greider gets my vote for most thought-provoking column of the day. Greider wrote a book called Secrets of the Temple about the Federal Reserve. In the latest issue of The Nation, he says it may be time to dismantle the Temple.

From the article:

Representative Wright Patman, the Texas populist who was a scourge of central bankers, once described the Federal Reserve as “a pretty queer duck.” Congress created the Fed in 1913 with the presumption that it would be “independent” from the rest of government, aloof from regular politics and deliberately shielded from the hot breath of voters or the grasping appetites of private interests–with one powerful exception: the bankers…

Among its functions, the Federal Reserve directly regulates the largest banks, but it also looks out for their well-being–providing regular liquidity loans for those caught short and bailing out endangered banks it deems “too big to fail.” Critics look askance at these peculiar arrangements and see “conspiracy.” But it’s not really secret. This duck was created by an act of Congress. The Fed’s favoritism toward bankers is embedded in its DNA.

Greider is well aware of the political Everest Congress would face in trying to tackle this:

A few months back, I ran into a retired Fed official who had been a good source twenty years ago when I was writing my book about the central bank, Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country. He is a Fed loyalist and did not leak damaging secrets. But he helped me understand how the supposedly nonpolitical Fed does its politics, behind the veil of disinterested expertise. When we met recently, he said the central bank is already making preparations to celebrate its approaching centennial. Some of us, I responded, have a different idea for 2013.

“We think that would be a good time to dismantle the temple,” I playfully told my old friend. “Democratize the Fed. Or tear it down. Create something new in its place that’s accountable to the public.”

The Fed man did not react well to my teasing. He got a stricken look. His voice tightened. Please, he pleaded, do not go down that road. The Fed has made mistakes, he agreed, but the country needs its central bank. His nervous reaction told me this venerable institution is feeling insecure about its future.

Greider lays out several suggestions for remaking the Fed, but here’s the main point:

A reconstituted central bank might keep the famous name and presidentially appointed governors, confirmed by Congress, but it would forfeit the mystique and submit to the usual standards of transparency and public scrutiny. The institution would be directed to concentrate on the Fed’s one great purpose–making monetary policy and controlling credit expansion to produce balanced economic growth and stable money. Most regulatory functions would be located elsewhere, in a new enforcement agency that would oversee regulated commercial banks as well as the “shadow banking” of hedge funds, private equity firms and others.

The Fed would thus be relieved of its conflicted objectives. Bank examiners would be free of the insider pressures that inevitably emanate from the Fed’s cozy relations with major banks. All of the private-public ambiguities concocted in 1913 would be swept away, including bank ownership of the twelve Federal Reserve banks, which could be reorganized as branch offices with a focus on regional economies.

But another viewpoint is out there today too.

Mark Gertler writes in the Financial Times that it’s a big mistake to reign in the Fed. In fact, he argues the Fed should have more power:

Unfortunately, the Fed cannot demonstrate what would have happened to the economy if it had not intervened in the way it did. Many observers agree that the situation would be far worse than it is today. Yet discussions of reining in central bank powers proceed as if the financial system would have stabilised itself without any Fed intervention…

A more constructive route for Congress would be to proceed with regulatory reform that would prevent a repeat of the current situation. At the core of the crisis is an antiquated regulatory system that permitted large financial institutions to take excessive risks. By giving the Fed the ability to monitor risk-taking by these institutions, Congress would diminish greatly the likelihood the central bank would again need to intervene directly in private credit markets.

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