Guest Post: The Fed’s “Independence” Argument Is False

The House has passed a bill to audit the Federal Reserve. 79% of the American people support a full audit.

In response, the Fed says that an audit would interfere with its “independence”.

However, the Constitution does not empower a central bank. And Congress — which created the Federal Reserve in 1913 and which has the power to create credit and money — certainly has the power to audit, dissolve, or do whatever it likes with the central bank (including stripping it of the power to create credit).

I have previously demonstrated that the Fed has done a terrible job of managing the economy, keeping unemployment low, and regulating banks.

And I have previously pointed out that the the independence argument is a red herring.

Indeed, the whole idea of independence means that the Fed should be shielded from political pressure to artificially pump up the economy with easy money right before elections. Congress never intended Fed “independence” to mean independence from Congressional oversight to ensure that the Fed is acting within its mandate and in the best interests of the country. These are two totally different concepts, and the Fed and its boosters are being disingenuous when they argue that an audit will interfere with independence from pressure to pump up the economy right before elections.

Now, in an interview this weekend with Der Spiegel, Paul Volcker — while trying to support the Fed’s argument for independence — actually undermines it:

SPIEGEL: Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are thinking about tougher controls over the Federal Reserve.

Volcker: I think the loss of independence and authority of the Federal Reserve would be a very serious matter for the United States. Not just in terms of monetary policy but in terms of our place in the world. People look to strong, credible institutions and I think the Federal Reserve has been such an institution. If that’s lost or too hamstrung by legislation I think we will regret it.

SPIEGEL: But is the Fed still the same kind of institution as during your tenure as chairman? Or is it now more of a governmental instrument? The Fed is managing the TARP program and is also buying government bonds.

Volcker: In some sense the Federal Reserve is always an instrument of the government. It is a government body but it is independent within government. But you are right in the sense that part of the concern is that they have involved themselves quantitatively in entering markets and in that process, you are supporting some markets and not others. That is an area in which the Federal Reserve has never wanted to get into and one that most central banks don’t want to get into. If you are going to maintain your independence you have to avoid that. To intervene in particular sectors of the market is not the proper role for the central bank over time. It could be justified only by extreme emergency.

Intervening and supporting some market players (Goldman, AIG, etc.) and not others (Lehman, etc.) is precisely what Bernanke has been doing. Whatever can be said for the Fed in the past, picking winners and losers is “not the proper role for the central bank”, in Volcker’s words. Without an audit, we will never know which “winners” were saved and which “losers” were left to die, or why. Nor do we really currently know which bailouts and other actions were truly performed under emergency conditions — to stave off catastrophe — and which were done to help out financial companies for other reasons.

Moreover, Bernanke gave many billions to private foreign banks and foreign central banks (and see this). Has the Fed been picking winners and losers among countries? Among private banks?

As former Federal Reserve economist William Bergman wrote (he sent me this by email; it was previously published in article form, but is not available on the Web):

One of the principal laws governing audits in the Federal Reserve was passed in 1978, the Federal Banking Agency Audit Act. This law established audit authority in the Comptroller General of the United States, who leads today’s General Accountability Office (GAO). The GAO conducts audits and surveys for a wide range of Federal Reserve activities, with over 100 conducted since 1978. Audit authority also resides in the Federal Reserve Board’s Office of Inspector General, who can audit Board programs as well as Reserve Bank operations when carrying out functions delegated by the Board.

The Federal Reserve’s financial statements are audited every year. The Board of Governor’s financial statements are audited by an independent auditor selected by the Board’s Office of Inspector General. The Reserve Banks’ statements are also subjected to outside audits, conducted by firms retained by the Board of Governors. These latter audits must have been an interesting exercise this year, given the massive expansion in Reserve Bank balance sheets in 2008. In turn, more generally, the Board of Governors conducts a wide range of reviews of Reserve Bank operations as part of its mandated oversight authority.

In this brief review of the Fed audit landscape, it’s worth noting that things haven’t always been this way. From the early 1930s to the early 1950s, for example, one of the shoes was on the other foot, as audit teams from the Reserve Banks examined the Board of Governors books. The GAO was actually precluded by law, law passed by Congress, from audit responsibility for the Fed, at least until the 1978 act referred to above. The main lesson here is that the structure of reporting and audit authority has changed in the past, and it can change again in the future.

But today, authority for auditing the Fed is in place. So why do so many people think we need an Audit the Fed Act?

Well, for one thing, the appearance of extensive auditing authority doesn’t mean audits are effective. Good auditing requires the willingness and ability of auditors to do their jobs. Some people view the Inspectors General, generally, and the Federal Reserve Board’s Office of Inspector General, specifically, as less than effective or independent in pursuing their mandates. In turn, some people question whether the Board’s oversight of the Reserve Banks, including the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, might be less than arms-length. More fundamentally, from the point of view of the supporters of the recently introduced legislation, there are a variety of restrictions on the ability of the GAO to audit the Fed. There are significant exceptions for monetary policy and transactions with foreign central banks and international organizations like the Bank for International Settlements and the IMF. The law proscribes GAO inspections of ‘deliberations, decisions, or actions on monetary policy,’ for example, as well as ‘transactions made under the direction of the Federal Open Market Committee.’ The proposed legislation under H.R. 1207 and S. 604 would remove those exceptions.

Why are the exceptions there in the first place? Well, a widespread mantra has it that Federal Reserve independence is crucial in allowing it to effectively pursue the statutory goals of maximum employment and stable prices. If we let politicians start mucking around in that arena too much, Fed leaders and supporters stress, we aren’t going to see very effective monetary policy. At a ‘town hall’ meeting last weekend, while addressing the audit issue, Fed Chairman Bernanke said ‘I don’t think people want Congress making monetary policy.’ But these audit bills don’t call for the Congress to make monetary policy. They call for broader authority for an independent audit of the Fed, from the General Accountability Office. Supporters feel it this authority would allow the Congress to do a better job of overseeing the performance of an entity to which the Congress has delegated the authority to ‘coin money, and regulate the value thereof,’ under Article I of the U.S. Constitution.

How independent is the Fed, right now, to begin with? The Fed is not an apolitical beast. It has had politicians working there in formal leadership positions as well as staffing roles. The Fed’s regulatory performance matters for the conduct of monetary policy, and the Fed’s relationships with the banks it regulates and bails out deserve scrutiny. Recently, we’ve been through a financial calamity, and have endured the biggest spike in the unemployment rate since World War II. Investment returns crumbled in 2007 and 2008, and Federal Reserve monetary and other regulatory policy played a significant role in this calamity. Looking back a little further, how effective has the ‘independent’ Fed been as source of stable prices? Congress passed the law first mandating ‘stable prices’ as a goal for Fed monetary policy in 1977, and the CPI has tripled since then.

The debate over curtailing the current legal restriction on GAO audits for ‘transactions made under the direction of the Federal Open Market Committee’ makes for a good case in point. This provision, on the surface, helps insulate monetary policy from Congressional oversight and/or second-guessing, promoting independent policymaking. But the FOMC conducts monetary policy under authority delegated by the Congress. It seems reasonable to allow for some form of stronger inquiry in this area, especially after the worst financial and economic crisis since the Great Depression. One facet of a possible future investigation could deal with individual monetary policy ‘transactions.’ Under the quantitative easing posture adopted by the Fed in recent years, with a wider range of financial instruments bought to liquify the banking system and promote monetary and credit growth, the question arises – at what price were those instruments bought? Were they ‘market’ prices, or were they another way to apply public resources to overpay for bad assets and help large financial firms that got into trouble?

That may or may not be a valid avenue of inquiry, but it seems like we could benefit greatly from learning about the broader range of issues that could be tackled.

Audit the Fed? Sounds good to me.