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| Building a National Campaign for a Strong Economy: Fed Up
Published By:Wall Street Journal

Lacker to Tell Congress the Fed Doesn’t Need an Overhaul

Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond President Jeffrey Lacker is set to tell a congressional panel Wednesday the U.S. central bank’s structure is effective, and that he is reluctant to see it altered in any major way.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Lacker said the U.S. central bank—with its Washington-based board of governors and 12 quasiprivate, quasigovernmental regional banks across the country—“works well.”

The Federal Reserve, created more than a century ago, might seem like “an archaic structure, but the choices and trade-offs they were facing then are still relevant choices and trade-offs now. Our federated structure reflected a desire to ensure that the diversity of views were reflected in monetary policy,” he said.

Mr. Lacker spoke to the Journal on Thursday in his office overlooking the James River, ahead of speech in which he argued the Fed was increasingly likely to face trouble if it doesn’t raise short-term interest rates soon.

The veteran central banker—he is the longest-serving regional Fed bank president—and Kansas City Fed President Esther George are scheduled to testify Wednesday before the House Committee on Financial Services’ Monetary Policy and Trade subcommittee. They will discuss the structure of their banks and “how it relates to the conduct of monetary policy and economic performance.”

The Fed in recent years has faced critics from the right and left who would like to change the way the central bank operates. Some Republican lawmakers, for example, want to give Congress more scrutiny over the Fed’s interest-rate-setting policy actions via formal government audits, something central bankers have long argued would make policy-making more political and ultimately less effective.

Some left-leaning activists and Democrats, including the campaign of presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, have called for bankers to be removed from the boards overseeing the regional Fed banks.

Members of the Center for Popular Democracy’s Fed Up campaign, working with a former top Fed staffer, have gone further. They have called for the regional Fed banks, which are technically owned by private banks via nonvoting shares, to be moved fully into government. The group also has sought a more open process to select bank presidents, and to take stock of their performance once they are on the job.

“I completely understand the heightened attention the Fed has gotten” in light of the dramatic actions it took over the course of the financial crisis and its aftermath, Mr. Lacker said. “We’re America’s central bank. And I think it’s a discussion worth having.”

Some of the criticism of the Fed owes to misunderstandings, Mr. Lacker said. But he added, “I’d agree we could do a better job of explaining our governance.”

By and large, Mr. Lacker said the current setup has proved to be the best in terms of setting policy and achieving the independence most economists believe is critical for effective central banking, a view shared by other regional Fed bank chiefs.

He said the regional banks, part-private and part-public organizations, are afforded independence to provide views protected from political interference. Turning the regional Fed banks into fully governmental institutions would compromise that and relieve the board of governors of a vital counterweight, Mr. Lacker said.

“Preserving that diversity of views, preserving the independence of the reserve bank president’s role in monetary policy, is an exceptionally high value,” he said.

Mr. Lacker also said the regional Fed banks’ boards of directors, drawn from a mix of local business and community leaders, as well as bankers, provide insight into local economic developments. These directors also offer operational insight to the central bank, a large service provider to financial institutions on a variety of fronts, he said.

The U.S. central bank, which is a major financial industry regulator, has long faced criticism because bankers serve on the boards of directors of the regional Fed banks. Critics say it is a conflict of interest because it allows banks to oversee their supervisor. Fed officials reject this view, saying that its regulatory activities, while carried out largely by the regional banks, are directed out of Washington.

“I think we all appreciate the—you know, I think [former Treasury Secretary and New York Fed President] Tim Geithner called it the optics issue, or optics problem” of the ownership structure and board composition, Mr. Lacker said. “As a practical matter, it’s not an issue.”

Mr. Lacker said that private bank ownership of the regional Fed banks isn’t like corporate ownership because the banks’ shares don’t have voting rights. He also said the regional boards have “a classic American governance role” and he rejected the idea that there would be any conflicts of interest faced by the board members.

Mr. Lacker said he welcomes meeting with Fed critics.

Many are activists “trying very hard to do what they can to improve lives. And you know, you can’t help but come away from conversations like that with a deep appreciation of the struggles and challenges that many of our—you know, many people in our country face,” Mr. Lacker said. He added, “I commend them for their interest in us and the willingness to engage in conversation with us.”

By Michael S. Derby