Secrets: Federal Reserve says no one can know its Structure, Governance
Monday, 21 September 2009

The Federal Reserve Board has rejected a request by U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner for a public review of the central bank’s structure and governance, three people familiar with the matter said.



The Obama administration proposed on June 17 a financial- regulatory overhaul including a “comprehensive review” of the Fed’s “ability to accomplish its existing and proposed functions” and the role of its regional banks. The Fed was to lead the study and enlist the Treasury and “a wide range of external experts.”

Some top central bank officials, after agreeing to the review, saw a potential threat to Fed independence after the Treasury released the proposal, two of the people said. The Obama plan said the Treasury would consider recommendations from the review and “propose any changes to the Fed’s governance and structure.”

“It is not obvious at all why that is a Treasury responsibility or even appropriate why the Treasury would undertake that kind of study,” said Robert Eisenbeis, chief monetary economist at Cumberland Advisors Inc. in Vineland, New Jersey, and a former Atlanta Fed research director. “The Fed was created by Congress and it is not part of the executive branch.”

U.S. lawmakers have also called for a review of the Fed’s power and structure, saying Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke overstepped his authority as he bailed out creditors of Bear Stearns Cos. and American International Group Inc. while battling a crisis that led to $1.62 trillion in writedowns and losses at financial firms.

No Work Done

While the report requested by the Treasury hasn’t been formally scrapped, no work has been done on the project, which was due Oct. 1, the people said. Treasury spokesman Andrew Williams declined to comment, as did Fed spokeswoman Michelle Smith.

The central bank is performing its own reviews of possible operational changes following the financial crisis. Fed Governor Elizabeth Duke is leading an internal study of the roles of the directors that serve on each of the boards at regional Fed banks.

“The institution is trying to keep a low profile,” said Vincent Reinhart, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and the former director of Division of Monetary Affairs at the Fed Board. “To publish a report now invites comment on that report.”

‘Associated Costs’

The Senate passed 96-2 a nonbinding budget amendment in April supporting “an evaluation of the appropriate number and the associated costs” of the district banks. The measure was sponsored by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, and Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, the senior Republican on the panel.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, has also called for more scrutiny of the central bank, saying last year he aims to probe how the 12 regional Fed presidents are appointed and their role in setting interest rates. The Fed banks are semi-private entities, each overseen by a nine-member board of directors.

Legislation in both houses of Congress would allow for audits by the Government Accountability Office of the central bank’s monetary policy and other operations.
Bernanke opposes the measure, which was introduced in the House by Representative Ron Paul of Texas, a Republican. Frank has scheduled a committee hearing on the issue for Sept. 25.

Lessons Learned

Along with the study by Duke, the Fed is reviewing how to overhaul supervision based on lessons learned from the financial crisis.

The Treasury interest in a Fed structural review partially stems from the administration’s proposal to make the central bank the lead regulator for the largest, most inter-connected financial institutions.

Fed Governor Daniel Tarullo, an Obama appointee, is working on changes to the supervisory process that are preparing the central bank for a larger role in tracking risks across the financial system.

Tarullo is focusing on bank-to-bank comparisons and quantitative scenario testing of bank portfolios. The Fed is currently examining the vulnerability of banks with assets under $100 billion to falling commercial real estate values.

Congressional leaders have balked at the notion of giving the Fed more power and are leaning toward vesting authority over capital, liquidity and risk-management practices of big banks in a council of regulators.

 

  

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