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Activists Seek More Public Input in Fed President Picks

Wall Street Journal - December 11, 2014, by Pedro Nicolaci da Costa - A group of left-leaning activists is taking aim at the process for selecting the presidents of the Federal Reserve‘s 12 regional banks, saying it lacks sufficient transparency and public input.

Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser and Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher have announced they will retire next year and both district banks are conducting searches for successors. The two men have been critics of the central bank’s prolonged low-rates policies, saying they aren’t doing very much to boost employment or growth.

Federal law dictates the process for choosing the regional presidents. They are picked by a subset of the banks’ boards of directors, with approval from the Fed’s Washington-based board of governors. The regional bank boards include bankers, business executives and some community representatives, but directors from banks supervised by the Fed don’t have a vote in hiring the banks’ presidents.

Commercial banks that are members of the Fed system own the stock of their district’s reserve bank and elect most of its directors. Remaining directors are appointed by the Fed board in Washington.

The activist group, led by the Center for Popular Democracy, a national nonprofit organization, said it is in talks with the Dallas Fed about increasing transparency in its selection process and is planning a march in Philadelphia from Constitution Hall to the Philadelphia Fed on Monday. Members of the group plan to hold a press conference outside the regional Fed bank like the one they held in Washington in November, at which community members and leaders will tell some of their stories.

The appointments are “too important to be done behind closed doors, too important to be dominated by financial and corporate interests,” said Ady Barkan, a staff attorney at the center.

“We are concerned there is not going to be enough community and public engagement,” Mr. Barkan said. “Corporate and financial elites already have tremendous influence over monetary policy and interest rates. The Fed should also listen to the tens of millions of working families who are not experiencing a recovery.”

The Fed board, the Dallas Fed and the Philadelphia Fed declined to comment.

In response to the activists’ concerns, voiced during a conversation with Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen in November, the central bank has just published a new list of “frequently asked questions” about the regional president selection process.

Kendra Brooks, a member of Action United in Philadelphia, a community organizing group, said she and others have met with some officials at the Philadelphia Fed, but have yet to be granted a meeting they’ve requested with Mr. Plosser or received an answer to their offer to take top officials around local communities.

“We’re hoping we can push them a little harder about allowing a meeting or taking a tour of their communities,” said Ms. Brooks.

Her story is an all-too-familiar one in the Great Recession of 2007-09. Having lost a 15-year job as a program director at Easter Seals, a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities, Ms. Brooks, 42 years old, said it took her a year and a half to find work again—and she now makes just half what she used to. She also lost her home to a foreclosure.

Fed governors are appointed by the U.S. president, subject to Senate confirmation. They all are voting members of the central bank’s powerful policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee.

The New York Fed president is the vice chairman of the FOMC and a permanent voting member. The other 11 presidents vote on a rotating basis. The presidents run the regional Fed banks, which supervise the private banks in their districts. The presidents also move markets and influence Fed policy through their public remarks.

The center organized activists to appear at the Kansas City Fed’s exclusive annual conference in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in August. They argued the Fed should not start raising its benchmark short-term interest rate from near zero until the labor market improves more.

U.S. unemployment has fallen to 5.8%, historically elevated but much lower than postrecession peaks. Some policy makers worry that number masks pockets of weakness including a large number of workers who are only working part-time because they cannot find full time jobs.

Many investors and top Fed officials expect the first rate increase in the middle of next year.