By Rob Garver
President Joe Biden and his advisers appear to be nearing a decision on whether to reappoint Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome Powell when his term ends in February.
But public outcry over persistently high inflation may have changed the terms of the discussion.
Biden is deciding as inflation climbs to levels not seen in three decades, with prices rising for various goods and services as well as necessities such as food and fuel. On Wednesday, the Labor Department reported that inflation in October jumped 6.2% from a year ago, a stunning leap after the Fed had spent nearly a decade unable to push inflation to 2%, its nominal target rate.
Last week, Powell and current Federal Reserve Board Governor Lael Brainard met individually with Biden in the White House, just days after Biden told reporters that he intends to make his plans for the Fed known “fairly quickly.”
With public approval of Biden’s job performance dropping, his party reeling from a gubernatorial election setback in Virginia in early November, and congressional Republicans hammering him for rising prices, Biden’s Fed appointment decision has taken on even greater weight.
Bank regulation on back burner
Since early this year, when speculation began over whether Biden would reappoint Powell, the clear alternative was for him to elevate Brainard to the job. But at the time, the focus of the debate appeared to be on their different approaches to banking regulation.
When people think of the Fed, they think mainly about its role in setting interest rates and controlling the money supply in the United States. However, the Fed also plays a major role in the regulation of some of the largest financial institutions in the country.
Powell, a Republican who was appointed to lead the Fed by former President Donald Trump, has taken what critics on the left view as an overly permissive stance when it comes to the regulation of large financial institutions.
Brainard, the only Democrat on the Fed board, is more aligned with left-leaning members of her party, such as U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, in believing that stricter supervision is necessary to avoid a repeat of the financial crisis that crippled the U.S. economy between late 2007 and mid-2009.
Now, however, with inflation on the rise and the president and his party facing poor public approval ratings, tighter banking regulations may be a second-tier issue for Biden.
“If you want to look at the economy right now and have a ledger of things to worry about, the soundness and safety of the banking system is not at the top of that list,” Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst for Bankrate.com, told VOA. “Over the long term, it should be toward the top of the list, but for now, banks are performing quite well. We haven’t had a major banking failure for quite some time.”
Inflation the key issue
People who pay attention to the Federal Reserve often categorize members of the board, and of the larger Federal Open Market Committee, which sets interest rates, as being either “hawkish” or “dovish.”
The hawks are policymakers who are sensitive to rising inflation and quick to raise interest rates to prevent inflation from getting out of control, even if it cools the economy to the point where not everyone seeking a job can find one.
Doves, by contrast, prioritize high rates of employment over low inflation, and they will vote to maintain low interest rates until the economy reaches what they consider “full employment.” This is not to say that doves will tolerate any level of inflation, but only that they do not mind if inflation slightly exceeds the Fed’s stated 2% target rate while jobs are still being created.
By any measure, both Powell and Brainard fall into the dovish category. As the U.S. economy has been recovering from the pandemic-induced recession last year, both have supported policies that have kept interest rates at near zero and have pumped huge amounts of money into the system, even as inflation began to rise.
Both have said that they believe the current wave of inflation is a transitory effect of the global economy trying to turn itself back on after the pandemic lockdowns. That stands in sharp contrast to many, such as former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, who have been warning for months that inflation could surge out of control.
Powell, however, is largely seen as less of a dove than Brainard, and with Biden feeling the political pinch, that might tilt the balance in favor of Powell.
Relationship with Congress
Another factor in Powell’s favor is that at a time when the president’s relationship with Republicans in Congress is strained, the current chairman has a rapport with members from both sides of the aisle.
“Within Congress, Powell has built up a great amount of credibility with both sides, both Republicans and Democrats,” said Christopher Russo, a postgraduate research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center.
“In the pandemic, the Fed adopted a flexible average inflation target, meaning that they are going to run inflation above target after periods where it ran below target, and Powell has done a lot of work to explain the importance of that policy to skeptics in Congress,” Russo told VOA.
He added: “So, when we get to the current point in time, where inflation is running much higher than the inflation target, I think Powell’s credibility here would be an actual asset.”
Most experts have always considered Powell’s reappointment as chairman to be more likely than his replacement, especially as the job of vice chair for banking supervision is opening up, and placing Brainard there might partly placate the Warren wing of the president’s party.
Since the inflation numbers were announced on Wednesday, the odds of a Powell reappointment rose from 71% to 76% as of Friday afternoon on the political betting website PredictIt.
“I think that the politics of this become more complicated by burgeoning and more persistent inflation,” said Hamrick, of Bankrate.com. “And so what might have been seen as more of a competition six to 12 months ago has become less so.”