Here's How to Make the Fed More Transparent and Accountable

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

The Marriner S. Eccles Federal Reserve Board Building, Friday, June 19, 2015, in Washington. 

The Federal Reserve has long faced fierce scrutiny from members of Congress, community leaders, and the press for its lack of transparency. Fed Chair Janet Yellen, still early in her term, has signaled an intention to improve transparency and hold the Fed accountable to the public interest, and she’ll face an important test this month as she starts deciding whom to appoint to the newly formed Community Advisory Council.

In the most recent example of Fed’s insular system of governance, Bloomberg Business revealed concerning news about the recent appointment of Patrick Harker as president of the Philadelphia Federal Reserve. Harker had served on the bank’s Board of Directors prior to his appointment, and was even on the search committee interviewing candidates for the presidential slot. Then, in a behind-the-scenes maneuver reminiscent of Dick Cheney’s infamous self-selection as George W. Bush’s running mate, Harker became a candidate for the job himself, and was swiftly chosen by his Board colleagues. Harker’s shadowy appointment process was par for the course at the Fed. In Dallas, the presidential appointment process has been downright dynastic: the outgoing president, Richard Fisher, appointed an advisory committee made up of the people who appointed him to help select his successor. 

Chair Yellen has an immediate opportunity to reverse course and change the face of the Fed. This year, the Fed announced the creation of a Community Advisory Council, intended to offer Fed leaders “diverse perspectives” on the economy, “with a particular focus on the concerns of low- and moderate-income populations.” Applications for the Community Advisory Council were due last week. The question facing Fed officials is whether they will appoint individuals to the Council who represent low- and moderate-income voices, or whether the Council will be another elite echo chamber (one earlier predecessor to the Council was heavy on members from for-profit lenders like Capital One and Citigroup—hardly organizations representing the interests of working families).

The announcement of the CAC was a direct response to growing demand for greater public representation at the Fed, and it’s not hard to see why. Of the 108 members of the 12 banks’ boards of directors (which select and oversee those 12 presidents), only 15 come from the nonprofit sector, academia, or labor organizations. The other 93 come from corporations or banks, even though the law requires that two-thirds represent a “diverse” set of interests, including those of labor and consumers. Fed officials lack diversity in other ways, too: among governors and presidents, all but one are white, and the vast majority are men.

Fed officials have huge power over the American economy: They vote on crucial monetary policy decisions, determining whether we reach full employment with rising wages for all or whether the economy continues toward stagnation and inequality. As long as Fed bodies are dominated by the financial sector, their decisions will reflect the perspectives of the very entities the Fed is meant to oversee, rather than the working families across the country who need higher wages and more equitable economic growth.

So, who will lead the Fed in the years to come? Next February, the terms of all 12 regional Fed presidents expire. Their respective Boards of Directors will decide whether to reappoint the presidents or replace them. A coalition of community-based organizations, faith leaders, policy advocates, and labor unions are calling for the Federal Reserve to make this process more transparent. At a bare minimum, the banks should publicize the schedule for the decision-making, the names and roles of the decision-makers, the criteria that will govern the process, and the names of candidates under consideration. A more public process would involve the opportunity for members of the public to serve on the search committees, mechanisms for the public to submit questions and receive answers from prospective candidates, and public forums where Fed officials actually engage in dialogue with the people whom they are supposed to represent. Chair Yellen and officials at the Fed have the power to implement such reforms, and their decisions will speak volumes about their commitment to building an independent central bank with democratic legitimacy.

Janet Yellen’s appointment as the first woman to lead the Fed signaled that change might be coming to a historically opaque institution. But to truly transform the Fed, Yellen and her fellow governors must ensure that the voices of working families aren’t drowned out by wealthy financial interests. The first step is ensuring that the new CAC lives up to its mission by including women, people of color, and representatives of organizations with low- and moderate-income members. It could even directly install some low- and moderate-income individuals on the Council. That would indeed bring new perspective to an institution that has, for too long, been dominated by the voices of America’s elite.

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