February 27, 2024

Economix Blog: Pressuring the Fed Can Backfire

In a statement this afternoon, the Federal Reserve announced that it was engaging in more stimulus, by extending the average maturity of the securities on its balance sheet. This was basically what markets had expected, even though the Republican Congressional leadership wrote a widely reported letter to Ben S. Bernanke, the Fed chairman, urging him not to engage in any more easing.

Scratch that: “Even though” may not convey the right causal relationship between those two events. Some may argue that the letter could have encouraged the Fed to issue another round of monetary stimulus.



Dollars to doughnuts.

The Federal Reserve is officially an independent body, and its autonomy is intended to shield it from short-term political interests that may be popular now but bad for the economy later.

Truth be told, though, efforts to put political pressure on the Fed go back much farther than this week. There have been many letters sent by Congressional committees and individual senators and members of Congress in just the last few years telling Fed officials to do or not do something or other, as well as in previous decades.

The letters linked above were generally for less significant decisions, of course. But in Congressional hearings and the like, legislators have attacked interest-rate policy and other important Fed actions, like quantitative easing, as well. Such confrontations, watched by a handful of people on C-SPAN, generally seem to be intended more as grandstanding than efforts that may actually change Fed policy.

When officials from the legislative and executive branches actually expect to influence Fed policy, they’re more likely to voice their arguments out of the public’s view, and in private meetings.

Why? As Bruce Bartlett, a former Treasury official from the George H.W. Bush White House and a contributor to Economix, explained by e-mail:

Historically, one of the main things that has held back politicians from publicly criticizing the Fed is that it can easily backfire and encourage it to do the opposite of what they want it to do. Certainly there have been many times in the ’80s and ’90s when administrations wanted an easier monetary policy. But they knew that the Fed jealously guards its independence and cannot allow itself to be seen as caving to administration pressure. Therefore, administration pressure to ease would force the Fed to remain tight lest it appear that it was caving to pressure. For this reason, administrations quickly learned that the best way to influence the Fed is through back channels. Historically, this has been done through the Treasury. I don’t know if it is still true, but for many years the Treasury secretary and the Fed chairman had breakfast every week, privately, no staff. This is the forum for the administration to tell the Fed what it should be doing.

I asked Mr. Bartlett whether he knew of specific cases where the Fed appeared to take an action precisely because there was pressure to do the opposite. He replied that he suspected such an incident occurred with Mr. Bernanke’s predecessor, Alan Greenspan:

When I worked at Treasury during the Bush 41 years, I had the definite sense that [Treasury Secretary Nicholas F.] Brady’s public criticism of Greenspan caused Greenspan to resist easing, which he might otherwise have done given economic conditions. Of course, I can’t prove it.

In today’s case, I doubt that the Fed decided to ease because of the Republicans’ letter; as I mentioned above, markets seem to think this was a sure bet already.

But because markets thought more easing was a sure bet, not easing after receiving this letter definitely would have made the Fed look as if it were caving to political pressure. In that sense, the Republicans’ attempt at exerting pressure seemed doomed to fail.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=d7ebb460ba95844543e780deab59ef58

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