With every passing day, the Fed is slowly but surely losing the game.
Only it is not just former (and in some cases current) Fed presidents admitting central banks are increasingly powerless to boost the global economy, even if they still have sway over capital markets. What is far more insidious to the Fed's waning credibility is when former economists affiliated with the Fed start repeating mantras that until recently were only a prominent feature in the so-called fringe media.
This is precisely what happened today when former central bank staffer and Dartmouth College economics professor Andrew Levin, special adviser to then Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke between 2010 to 2012, joined with an activist group to argue for overhauls at the central bank that they say would distance it from Wall Street and make its activities more transparent and accountable to the public.
Levin is pressing for the overhaul with Fed Up coalition activists. Many of the proposed changes target the 12 regional Federal Reserve Banks, which are quasi-private and technically owned by commercial banks in their respective districts.
All of that is not surprising. What he said to justify his new found cause, however, is.
"A lot of people would be stunned to know” the extent to which the Federal Reserve is privately owned, Mr. Levin said. The Fed “should be a fully public institution just like every other central bank” in the developed world, he said in a conference call announcing the plan. He described his proposals as "sensible, pragmatic and nonpartisan."
Why is that stunning? Because it has long been a bone of contention if only among the fringe media, that at its core the Fed is merely a private institution, beholden only to its de facto owners: not the people of the U.S. but to a small cabal of banks. Worse, the actual org chart of who owns what is not disclosed, even as the vast majority of the U.S. population remains deluded that the Fed is a publicly owned institution.
As the WSJ goes on to note, the former central bank staffer said he sees his ideas as designed to maintain the virtues the central bank already brings to the table. They aren’t targeted at changing how policy is conducted today. “What’s important here is that reform to the Federal Reserve can last for 100 years, not just the near term,” he said.
And this is coming from a former Fed employee and Ben Bernanke's personal advisor! That in itself is a most striking development, because now that the insiders are finally speaking up, it will be a race among both current and prior Fed workers to reveal as much dirty laundry as possible ahead of what is increasingly being perceived by many as the Fed's demise.
To be sure, Levin's personal campaign for Fed transformation will not be easy, and as the WSJ writes, what is being sought by Mr. Levin and the activists is significant and would require congressional action. Ady Barkan, who leads the Fed Up campaign, said the Fed’s current structure “is an embarrassment to America” and Fed leaders haven’t been “willing or able” to make changes.
Specifically, Levin wants the 12 regional Fed banks to be brought fully into the government. He also wants the process of selecting new bank presidents—they are key regulators and contributors in setting interest-rate policy—opened up more fully to public input, as well as term limits for Fed officials.
This would represent a revolution to the internal staffing of the Fed, which will no longer be at the mercy of its now-defunct shareholders, America's commercial banks; it would also mean that Goldman Sachs would lose all its leverage as the world's biggest central bank incubator, a revolving door relationship which has allowed the Manhattan firm to dominate the world of finance for the decades.
Levin’s proposal was made in conjunction with the Center for Popular Democracy’s Fed Up coalition, a group that has been pressuring the central bank for more accountability for some time. The left-leaning group has been critical of the structure of the regional banks, and has been pressing the Fed to hold off on raising rates in a bid to make sure the recovery is enjoyed not just by the wealthy, in their view.
The proposal was revealed on a conference call that also included a representative from Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, although all campaigns were invited to participate.
The WSJ adds that according to Levin, who knows the Fed's operating structure intimately, says the members of the regional Fed bank boards of directors, the majority of whom are selected by the private banks with the approval of the Washington-based governors, should be chosen differently. The professor says director slots now reserved for financial professionals regulated by the Fed should be eliminated, and that directors who oversee and advise the regional banks should be selected in a public process involving the Washington governors and local elected officials. These directors also should better represent the diversity of the U.S.
Levin also wants formal public input into the selection of new bank presidents, with candidates’ names known publicly and a process that allows for public comment in a way that doesn’t now exist. The professor also wants all Fed officials to serve for single seven-year terms, which would give them the needed distance from the political process while eliminating situations where some policy makers stay at the bank for decades. Alan Greenspan, for example, was Fed chairman from 1987 to 2006.
As the WSJ conveniently adds, the selection of regional bank presidents has become a hot-button issue. Currently, the leaders of the New York, Philadelphia, Dallas and Minneapolis Fed banks are helmed by men who formerly worked for or had close connections to investment bank Goldman Sachs.
Levin called for watchdog agency the Government Accountability Office to annually review and report on Fed operations, including the regional Fed banks. He also wants the regional Fed banks to be covered under the Freedom of Information Act. A regular annual review hopefully would insulate the effort from perceptions of political interference, Mr. Levin said.
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While ending the Fed may still seem like a pipe dream, at least until the market's next major crash at which point the population may finally turn on the culprit behind America's serial boom-bust culture, the U.S. central bank, Levin's proposal would get to the heart of the most insidious conflict of interest in the US: the fact that the Federal Reserve works not for the people of America, but for its owners - the banks.
Which is also why, sadly, this proposal will be dead on arrival, as its passage would represent the biggest loss for Wall Street in the past 103 years, far more significant than anything Dodd-Frank could hope to accomplish.