Keep Congress Away From the Fed
Mortimer B. Zuckerman
WHEN THE PROFESSIONALS AT THE Federal Reserve Board review the epic diary of our economy, their lament must be "How soon they forget." It has been 30 years since America was in the grip of double-digit inflation, with seemingly no hope of escape. The professionals look back with justifiable pride on the brave actions of the Fed under Chairman
This was an exemplary illustration of Federal Reserve independence. Imagine if
When the stock market crashed in 1987, the Fed restored confidence. It came to the rescue again after 9/11 created the financial disruption of 2001.
How soon they forget! It has been only a year since our overleveraged system buckled. Fear and panic paralyzed normal market functions. We were on the verge of enduring a freeze-up of the entire financial system that would have plunged our economy into another Great Depression. What pulled us back from the chasm was the intervention of the
The Fed led off by cutting interest rates aggressively, bringing them close to zero. That by itself didn't do the trick. The Fed swiftly realized that the too-big-to-fail financial institutions, which account for roughly half of our banking, had seized up because their own financial assets had collapsed. The smaller banks didn't have the means to bridge the gap. Understandably, households and businesses cut their debt, so spending fell just when we needed to increase demand to prop up the economy. The Fed realized that unconventional policy tools were urgently needed to keep equity and debt capital flowing. It responded with great creativity and ingenuity through unique lending and asset purchase programs. It rebuilt confidence in the system through a series of "stress tests" that looked at which banks' policies had gotten out of whack, lending too much on the basis of inadequate capital. The unprecedented measures that the Fed took restored confidence and liquidity without provoking sharp increases in inflation. The rescue could not have happened without the Fed's credibility and independence from short-term political pressures.
In the process, the Fed has stoked public anger by bailing out, with billions of tax dollars, the same people and financial firms that got us into so much trouble in the first place. By bailing out individual firms, the Fed broke its long-standing policy of creating money completely separate from the decision of who benefited. It was necessary to do this because a general easing would not prevent the domino effect whereby one firm's collapse would lead to runs on the others, thus threatening the health of the entire financial system that lies at the core of our free- market economy.
As the chairman of the Fed,
These are but a few examples of why we must preserve the Federal Reserve's ability to foster financial stability and promote economic recovery.
It could fairly be said that the Fed did not take timely steps to correct a generally unperceived structural transformation of the financial world. Money market funds emerged that undermined deposit accounts in banks; commercial paper transformed the business of short-term lending to big corporations; high-yield bonds had the same effect on lending to smaller companies.
Then there were the many complex debt securities. Those in the financial world relied on third-party insurers who they believed would immunize them against failure mainly through so-called credit default swaps. When that proved illusory, the result was a panic that shattered confidence and raised the possibility of systemic failure.
The financial world seemed so stable and predictable that it was a tremendous shock to find that we were living on top of the San Andreas Fault. Indeed, we now live with secondary tremors because the imbalances that created the crisis, such as excessive leverage and collapsing asset values, have not yet disappeared (see
The Fed has suffered disrepute in
The result has been legislative proposals before
The sponsors of the legislation discount how much the Fed has done to reduce the risks. The Fed has toughened the rules. It now requires banks to hold more equity capital and liquidity, and it is seeking to structure compensation packages in ways that limit excessive risk-taking by bankers. Since giant financial firms will inevitably be a part of our future, the Fed is canvassing new regulations and tougher oversight of large, complex firms. As Bernanke put it, we are going to have to develop "a special bankruptcy regime for financial firms whose disorderly failure would threaten the integrity of the financial system."
None of the measures already taken would have been possible without the Fed's unparalleled expertise and authority derived from its role as bank supervisor. It's an expertise critical to overseeing complex financial firms and their interactions with others and the market. But
There is another situation coming to a boil. Banking reserves that determine the capacity to create money have increased by a multiple of nearly 500, from
The Fed just has to be protected. If global financial markets came to believe that political pressure was determining monetary policy, there would be dangerous consequences. The markets would reckon that inflation in
All this would be a high price for congressional amnesia. It is not as if the Fed is unscrutinized. It gets plenty of attention from both the financial markets and the media. The chairman of the Fed and other Fed officials are constantly testifying before congressional committees. But a congressional audit of monetary policy through the GAO is a different matter altogether.
An independent monetary policy designed and executed by the Fed is one of our enduring achievements. It has for decades brought us relatively low inflation and has been admired and imitated by many other countries. As Sen.
We must preserve the Fed's historic and crucial insulation. Sen.
When we fell off the cliff, the Fed threw us a rope. While we are being hauled back up, along comes a busybody who says, "Give me the rope . . ." No thanks!
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Keep Congress Away From the Fed | Mortimer B. Zuckerman
(c) 2009 U.S. News & World Report