Congress and Public Ramping Up Scrutiny of the Federal Reserve
As Congress figures out what the new structure of financial services regulation will look like, there has been considerable debate about what role the Federal Reserve should play and how much oversight lawmakers should have over the Fed.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke is likely to get an earful at Thursday's confirmation hearing for his second term, though there is no indication he is in danger of not winning a majority of lawmakers' votes.
Bernanke, a Republican who was appointed by President George W. Bush and reappointed by President Obama, has taken the Fed in a more activist direction than even Bernanke might have predicted when he came to office.
However, especially in light of his background as a scholar of the Great Depression, he has been determined to doing all within his power to prevent the recent recession from turning into another depression.
"It is popular to blame both the Fed and Treasury, but what they did was messy but effective,'' said CUNA Chief Economist Bill Hampel. "We are coming through the worst recession since the '30s, and if the Fed and Treasury hadn't done what they did, the economy might well look like it did in the '30s."
The bailouts of insurance giant A.I.G. and the decision to infuse capital into many banks angered those on the right and left for different reasons. Conservatives saw it as a giant step toward socialism while liberals felt large institutions were being helped, despite having made many poor investment decisions.
This anger manifested itself before Thanksgiving when the House Financial Services Committee passed an amendment sponsored by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) allowing Congress to request an audit of all of the operations of the Federal Reserve including its decisions on monetary policy. That amendment passed 43-26 despite the efforts of Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) to defeat it.
Hampel said if Paul's amendment were enacted into law, it would jeopardize the Fed's independence and result in decisions on issues such as monetary policy being more influenced by political factors and more likely to create an expansionist monetary policy.
The Federal Reserve's role in determining economic policy has been controversial since it was created in 1913. It is a hybrid of decentralized structure-with 12 regional banks and centralized clout through its powerful Board of Governors. Paul is part of a long line of politicians who have pushed for limiting the Fed's role, mostly without success.
The Obama administration and congressional Democrats are taking a different approach to reduce the role of the Fed. They have been pushing for the creation of the Consumer Financial Products Agency in part because they the Fed was insufficiently aggressive in regulating financial products and practices that caused the burst of the housing bubble and the subsequent recession.
Under Bernanke, the Fed has been more aggressive on consumer protection. It recently issued regulations that will give consumers more options when choosing whether to use overdraft protection programs. A move that some financial institutions complained would hurt them. The Fed hasn't taken a position on the CFPA.
Hampel added that there are "synergies and contradictions in the Fed having responsibilities on both monetary policy and consumer protection."
NAFCU Chief Economist Tun Wai declined to comment on the efforts to change the Fed's role but said he hoped that whatever happens doesn't jeopardize the Fed's ability to provide essential services for credit unions.
"The services that the Fed provides in terms of payment systems and check clearing effect the day-to-day operations of credit unions a great deal. Without those, credit unions would be unable to function," he said.
A group of senior NAFCU executives and board members meet annually with several Fed governors to discuss regulatory and other issues of importance to credit union members. This year's meeting, the 17th, is scheduled for Dec. 7. Wai said the sessions have raised credit unions' profiles at the Fed and given NAFCU a chance to show the impact of some regulatory decisions.