The Fight For Fed Independence

You may have heard of a petition that is making the rounds of economists calling on Congress and the Executive Branch to do certain things to ensure the independence of the Fed. Here is a link to the WSJ Real Time Economics Blog that has the wording of the petition and the signatories so far. Since some of you can’t get past the WSJ fire wall, here is the text part of the petition:

Open Letter to Congress and the Executive Branch

Amidst the debate over systemic regulation, the independence of U.S. monetary policy is at risk. We urge Congress and the Executive Branch to reaffirm their support for and defend the independence of the Federal Reserve System as a foundation of U.S. economic stability. There are three specific risks that must be contained.

First, central bank independence has been shown to be essential for controlling inflation. Sooner or later, the Fed will have to scale back its current unprecedented monetary accommodation. When the Federal Reserve judges it time to begin tightening monetary conditions, it must be allowed to do so without interference. Second, lender of last resort decisions should not be politicized.

Finally, calls to alter the structure or personnel selection of the Federal Reserve System easily could backfire by raising inflation expectations and borrowing costs and dimming prospects for recovery. The democratic legitimacy of the Federal Reserve System is well established by its legal mandate and by the existing appointments process. Frequent communication with the public and testimony before Congress ensure Fed accountability.

If the Federal Reserve is given new responsibilities every effort must be made to avoid compromising its ability to manage monetary policy as it sees fit.

On Econbrowser, James Hamilton raises some concerns about the Fed’s new balance sheet and how it may be impacting its independence:

The reason I find that loss of Fed independence to be a source of alarm is the observation that every hyperinflation in history has had two ingredients. The first is a fiscal debt for which there was no politically feasible ability to pay with tax increases or spending cuts. The second is a central bank that was drawn into the task of creating money as the only way to meet the obligations that the fiscal authority could not. Every historical hyperinflation has ended when the fiscal problems got resolved and independence of the central bank was restored.

Surely it is not far-fetched to suggest that the U.S. faces a profound political challenge in using spending cuts or tax increases to meet its current and planned fiscal obligations. Here’s an observation that brought that reality home to me on a personal level: in fiscal year 2006, receipts collected by the U.S. federal government from personal income taxes totaled $1.06 trillion. Thus, to a first approximation of what an extra trillion dollars in taxes would mean for me personally, I just take the number I paid in 2006 and double it. And then I ask myself, how likely is it that Congress would actually do such a thing? With budget deficits in excess of a trillion dollars annually for the foreseeable future, it seems we are already well past the point at which the ability of the Treasury to fund the expanded liabilities through tax increases would reasonably be questioned.

My personal view is that the Fed has been ceding its independence for some fairly long period of time and that the financial crisis simply put an exclamation point on the process. If it is going to be reclaimed, it will take a new Chairman and probably a crisis similar to what Volcker faced.

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