The Times They Are A-Changin' , by Tim Duy: The Federal Reserve is now destined to get a dramatic makeover in the next few months. That is assuming that the Trump administration carves some time out of their busy schedule of managing chaos to nominate more governors. And the Senate finds the time to confirm those nominations.
Until the time the administration and Senate get their acts together, the balance of power at the Federal Reserve will shift to the regional presidents. And that could put monetary policy on a less certain course over the next year as doves on the FOMC are replaced with hawks and the Board lacks sufficient person-power to hold a steady line.
The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve is supposed to have seven members. At the beginning of the Trump era, two spots were open. Then former Governor Daniel Tarullo resigned. That left four members and three openings.
Today we learned that Vice Chair Stanley Fischer will soon depart, on or around October 13 of this year. The stated explanation for his departure is "personal reasons." I fear this means a serious health issue. If so, my thoughts and prayers go out to him and his family.
That leaves three members and four openings. To give a sense of what this means operationally for the Fed, take a gander at the Board Committee assignments:
Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard is serving on SEVEN committees! Federal Reserve Governor Jerome Powell is on FIVE. You might think he is slacking, but he is the chair of those committees. Fischer currently has four assignments. Unless we get some new governors soon, Brainard and Powell will have to step it up a bit more to cover for him. I am thinking they are overworked. Just a bit.
Hats off to Brainard and Powell. Committee work is some of my least favorite work.
Who am I kidding? It is my least favorite work.
So now we are down to three governors and five regional presidents on the FOMC. At least in theory, this means the regional presidents can roll the governors on policy votes. Which means I have to start taking the presidents a little more seriously. Because in all honestly when the Board is fully staffed, that is where the power resides. And there is only so much time in the day to read speeches. The presidents talk a lot (but will the come speak at my events in Portland, a little hop from San Francisco - noooo), the governors too little.
Moreover, the Board generally offers a certain consistency of thought across years, whereas the regional presidents on the FOMC rotate. So next year, for example, the torch will pass from the dovish Minneapolis and Chicago Presidents Neal Kashkari and Charles Evans to the more hawkish San Francisco and Cleveland Presidents John Williams and Loretta Mester. Also added will be the still-to-be-announced Richmond Federal Reserve President, a hawkish spot in recent years.
The tide might turn on the hawks this year though, as it is easy to tell a story where Chair Yellen, Powell, Philadelphia President Patrick Harker, and New York President William Dudley all support a December rate hike while Brainard, Kashkari, Evans, and Dallas President Robert Kaplan oppose. What fun would that meeting be?
Of course, Randy Quarles is waiting in the wings for Senate confirmation, so perhaps he would tip the balance to the hawkish side. Marvin Goodfriend is rumored for another open position, but has yet to be nominated (I can see both hawk and dove in his record, but I am thinking he will lean hawkish). So it may be that by the beginning of the year the voting power will tip back to the Board, backed by a fairly hawkish rotation of presidents. So if the doves want to take a longer pause before hiking rates again, they need to ensure Yellen is on their side going into the end of the year.
Speaking of Yellen, a decision on the Chair will soon need to be made. Yellen term expires in February of next year. Trump has toyed with the financial press by claiming she is in the running. I hope this is true, but Trump appears more interested in wiping the slate clean of Obama appointees than anything else. And she would be the pro-regulatory fly in the ointment, opposing Trump's preferred deregulatory agenda. So I can't get on board the Yellen train just yet.
White House economic advisor Gary Cohn had been thought to be in the front-running for the spot, but the latest word is that he tanked that opportunity with his frank (but belated) criticism of Trump's handling of the Charlotsville incident. What a way to go - catching it on one end for not speaking out soon enough and then, after already having lost that battle, grows a conscience and then catches it on the other end. Long story short, the White House is scrambling for a new name - and now need to get a replacement for Fischer (who could have stayed after his term as Vice Chair ended).
The Washington Post is reporting that Powell could be up for the job. That would be a good pick in my opinion. Former Governor Keven Warsh is also reportedly in the running. He has something few can match: Trump's childhood friend Ron Lauder is Warsh's father-in-law. It's not what you know, it's who you know. My feelings about Warsh are not warm.
Also, to add a bit more excitement into the mix, Yellen can stay on as Governor even if she is not the chair. Would she stay? Maybe not. Maybe. No chair has stayed since Mariner Eccles. Maybe it is a good time for one to stick around a few more years.
Bottom Line: Phew. I think that is the current state of play. Many potentially significant changes happening at the Fed over the next several months, and it is hard to predict how it will all end. All we know for now is a reported debt-ceiling deal removes the final potential obstacle to balance sheet reduction this month. That first step of unwinding the quantitative easing of the crisis years has wide support at the Fed; central bankers would like to get it underway before leadership changes begin in earnest.