The Fed’s independence helped it save the US economy in 2008 – the CDC needs the same authority today

https://theconversation.com/the-feds-independence-helped-it-save-the-us-economy-in-2008-the-cdc-needs-the-same-authority-today-142593

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The image of scientists standing beside governors, mayors or the president has become common during the pandemic. Even the most cynical politician knows this public health emergency cannot be properly addressed without relying on the scientific knowledge possessed by these experts.

Yet, ultimately, U.S. government health experts have limited power. They work at the discretion of the White House, leaving their guidance subject to the whims of politicians and them less able to take urgent action to contain the pandemic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidelines only to later revise them after the White House intervened. The administration has also undermined its top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, over his blunt warnings that the pandemic is getting worse – a view that contradicts White House talking points.

And most recently, the White House stripped the CDC of control of coronavirus data, alarming health experts who fear it will be politicized or withheld.

In the realm of monetary policy, however, there is an agency with experts trusted to make decisions on their own in the best interests of the U.S. economy: the Federal Reserve. As I describe in my recent book, “Stewards of the Market,” the Fed’s independence allowed it to take politically risky actions that helped rescue the economy during the financial crisis of 2008.

That’s why I believe we should give the CDC the same type of authority as the Fed so that it can effectively guide the public through health emergencies without fear of running afoul of politicians.

 

The paradox of expertise

There is a paradox inherent in the relationship between political leaders and technical experts in government.

Experts have the training and skill to apply scientific knowledge in complex biological and economic systems, yet democratically elected political leaders may overrule or ignore their advice for ill or good.

This happened in May when the CDC, the federal agency charged with controlling the spread of disease, removed advice regarding the dangers of singing in church choirs from its website. It did not do so because of new evidence. Rather, it was because of political pressure from the White House to water down the guidance for religious groups.

Similarly, the White House undermined the CDC’s guidance on school reopenings and has pressured it to revise them. So far, it seems the CDC has rebuffed the request.

The ability of elected leaders to ignore scientists – or the scientists’ acquiescence to policies they believe are detrimental to public welfare – is facilitated by many politicians’ penchant for confident assertion of knowledge and the scientist’s trained reluctance to do so.

Compare Fauci’s repeated comment that “there is much we don’t know about the virus” with President Donald Trump’s confident assertion that “we have it totally under control.”

 

Experts with independence

Given these constraints on technical expertise, the performance of the Fed in the financial crisis of 2008 offers an informative example that may be usefully applied to the CDC today.

The Federal Reserve is not an executive agency under the president, though it is chartered and overseen by Congress. It was created in 1913 to provide economic stability, and its powers have expanded to guard against both depression and crippling inflation.

At its founding, the structure of the Fed was a political compromise designed make it independent within the government in order to de-politicize its economic policy decisions. Today its decisions are made by a seven-member board of governors and a 12-member Federal Open Market Committee. The members, almost all Ph.D. economists, have had careers in academia, business and government. They come together to analyze economic data, develop a common understanding of what they believe is happening and create policy that matches their shared analysisThis group policymaking is optimal when circumstances are highly uncertain, such as in 2008 when the global financial system was melting down.

The Fed was the lead actor in preventing the system’s collapse and spent several trillion dollars buying risky financial assets and lending to foreign central banks – decisions that were pivotal in calming financial markets but would have been much harder or may not have happened at all without its independent authority.

The Fed’s independence is sufficiently ingrained in our political culture that its chair can have a running disagreement with the president yet keep his job and authority.

 

Putting experts at the wheel

A health crisis needs trusted experts to guide decision-making no less than an economic one does. This suggests the CDC or some re-imagined version of it should be made into an independent agency.

Like the Fed, the CDC is run by technical experts who are often among the best minds in their fields. Like the Fed, the CDC is responsible for both analysis and crisis response. Like the Fed, the domain of the CDC is prone to politicization that may interfere with rational response. And like the Fed, the CDC is responsible for decisions that affect fundamental aspects of the quality of life in the United States.

Were the CDC independent right now, we would likely see a centralized crisis management effort that relies on the best science, as opposed to the current patchwork approach that has failed to contain the outbreak nationally. We would also likely see stronger and consistent recommendations on masks, social distancing and the safest way to reopen the economy and schools.

Independence will not eliminate the paradox of technical expertise in government. The Fed itself has at times succumbed to political pressure. And Trump would likely try to undermine an independent CDC’s legitimacy if its policies conflicted with his political agenda – as he has tried to do with the central bank.

But independence provides a strong shield that would make it much more likely that when political calculations are at odds with science, science wins.

 

 

 

 

Federal Reserve – Semiannual Monetary Policy Report to the Congress

https://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/testimony/powell20200616a.htm

Federal Reserve Board - Structure of the Federal Reserve System

Chair Powell submitted identical remarks to the Committee on Financial Services, U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., on June 17, 2020.

Chairman Crapo, Ranking Member Brown, and other members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to present the Federal Reserve’s semiannual Monetary Policy Report.

Our country continues to face a difficult and challenging time, as the pandemic is causing tremendous hardship here in the United States and around the world. The coronavirus outbreak is, first and foremost, a public health crisis. The most important response has come from our health-care workers. On behalf of the Federal Reserve, I want to express our sincere gratitude to these dedicated individuals who put themselves at risk, day after day, in service to others and to our nation.

Current Economic Situation and Outlook
Beginning in mid-March, economic activity fell at an unprecedented speed in response to the outbreak of the virus and the measures taken to control its spread. Even after the unexpectedly positive May employment report, nearly 20 million jobs have been lost on net since February, and the reported unemployment rate has risen about 10 percentage points, to 13.3 percent. The decline in real gross domestic product (GDP) this quarter is likely to be the most severe on record. The burden of the downturn has not fallen equally on all Americans. Instead, those least able to withstand the downturn have been affected most. As discussed in the June Monetary Policy Report, low-income households have experienced, by far, the sharpest drop in employment, while job losses of African Americans, Hispanics, and women have been greater than that of other groups. If not contained and reversed, the downturn could further widen gaps in economic well-being that the long expansion had made some progress in closing.

Recently, some indicators have pointed to a stabilization, and in some areas a modest rebound, in economic activity. With an easing of restrictions on mobility and commerce and the extension of federal loans and grants, some businesses are opening up, while stimulus checks and unemployment benefits are supporting household incomes and spending. As a result, employment moved higher in May. That said, the levels of output and employment remain far below their pre-pandemic levels, and significant uncertainty remains about the timing and strength of the recovery. Much of that economic uncertainty comes from uncertainty about the path of the disease and the effects of measures to contain it. Until the public is confident that the disease is contained, a full recovery is unlikely.

Moreover, the longer the downturn lasts, the greater the potential for longer-term damage from permanent job loss and business closures. Long periods of unemployment can erode workers’ skills and hurt their future job prospects. Persistent unemployment can also negate the gains made by many disadvantaged Americans during the long expansion and described to us at our Fed Listens events. The pandemic is presenting acute risks to small businesses, as discussed in the Monetary Policy Report. If a small or medium-sized business becomes insolvent because the economy recovers too slowly, we lose more than just that business. These businesses are the heart of our economy and often embody the work of generations.

With weak demand and large price declines for some goods and services—such as apparel, gasoline, air travel, and hotels—consumer price inflation has dropped noticeably in recent months. But indicators of longer-term inflation expectations have been fairly steady. As output stabilizes and the recovery moves ahead, inflation should stabilize and then gradually move back up over time closer to our symmetric 2 percent objective. Inflation is nonetheless likely to remain below our objective for some time.

Monetary Policy and Federal Reserve Actions to Support the Flow of Credit
The Federal Reserve’s response to this extraordinary period is guided by our mandate to promote maximum employment and stable prices for the American people, along with our responsibilities to promote the stability of the financial system. We are committed to using our full range of tools to support the economy in this challenging time.

In March, we quickly lowered our policy interest rate to near zero, reflecting the effects of COVID-19 on economic activity, employment, and inflation, and the heightened risks to the outlook. We expect to maintain interest rates at this level until we are confident that the economy has weathered recent events and is on track to achieve our maximum-employment and price-stability goals.

We have also been taking broad and forceful actions to support the flow of credit in the economy. Since March, we have been purchasing sizable quantities of Treasury securities and agency mortgage-backed securities in order to support the smooth functioning of these markets, which are vital to the flow of credit in the economy. As described in the June Monetary Policy Report, these purchases have helped restore orderly market conditions and have fostered more accommodative financial conditions. As market functioning has improved since the strains experienced in March, we have gradually reduced the pace of these purchases. To sustain smooth market functioning and thereby foster the effective transmission of monetary policy to broader financial conditions, we will increase our holdings of Treasury securities and agency mortgage-backed securities over coming months at least at the current pace. We will closely monitor developments and are prepared to adjust our plans as appropriate to support our goals.

To provide stability to the financial system and support the flow of credit to households, businesses, and state and local governments, the Federal Reserve, with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, established 11 credit and liquidity facilities under section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act. The June Monetary Policy Report provides details on these facilities, which fall into two categories: stabilizing short-term funding markets and providing more-direct support for credit across the economy.

To help stabilize short-term funding markets, the Federal Reserve set up the Commercial Paper Funding Facility and the Money Market Liquidity Facility to stem rapid outflows from prime money market funds. The Fed also established the Primary Dealer Credit Facility, which provides loans against good collateral to primary dealers that are critical intermediaries in short-term funding markets.

To more directly support the flow of credit to households, businesses, and state and local governments, the Federal Reserve established a number of facilities. To support the small business sector, we established the Paycheck Protection Program Liquidity Facility to bolster the effectiveness of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act’s (CARES Act) Paycheck Protection Program. Our Main Street Lending Program, which we are in the process of launching, supports lending to both small and midsized businesses. The Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility supports lending to both businesses and consumers. To support the employment and spending of investment-grade businesses, we established two corporate credit facilities. And to help U.S. state and local governments manage cash flow pressures and serve their communities, we set up the Municipal Liquidity Facility.

The tools that the Federal Reserve is using under its 13(3) authority are appropriately reserved for times of emergency. When this crisis is behind us, we will put them away. The June Monetary Policy Report reviews the implications of these tools for the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet.

Many of these facilities have been supported by funding from the CARES Act. We will be disclosing, on a monthly basis, names and details of participants in each such facility; amounts borrowed and interest rate charged; and overall costs, revenues, and fees for each facility. We embrace our responsibility to the American people to be as transparent as possible, and we appreciate that the need for transparency is heightened when we are called upon to use our emergency powers.

We recognize that our actions are only part of a broader public-sector response. Congress’s passage of the CARES Act was critical in enabling the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department to establish many of the lending programs. The CARES Act and other legislation provide direct help to people, businesses, and communities. This direct support can make a critical difference not just in helping families and businesses in a time of need, but also in limiting long-lasting damage to our economy.

I want to end by acknowledging the tragic events that have again put a spotlight on the pain of racial injustice in this country. The Federal Reserve serves the entire nation. We operate in, and are part of, many of the communities across the country where Americans are grappling with and expressing themselves on issues of racial equality. I speak for my colleagues throughout the Federal Reserve System when I say, there is no place at the Federal Reserve for racism and there should be no place for it in our society. Everyone deserves the opportunity to participate fully in our society and in our economy.

We understand that the work of the Federal Reserve touches communities, families, and businesses across the country. Everything we do is in service to our public mission. We are committed to using our full range of tools to support the economy and to help assure that the recovery from this difficult period will be as robust as possible.

Thank you. I am happy to take your questions.

 

 

 

 

Home of the Brave

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