1913 was a big year for America. On October 7, Henry Ford introduced the world’s first moving car assembly line in Highland Park, Michigan. Then two months later, on December 23, Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act creating our nation’s central bank.
The evolution of the automobile over the past 108 years, from the Ford Model T to Tesla's Model X, has been nothing short of stunning. The Federal Reserve’s advances have been, well, let’s just say slower. Much slower.
Which brings me to my point: Yes, the Federal Reserve has greatly aided our economic well-being (by cushioning us from and even helping us avoid economic catastrophe) and yes it has expanded its influence over the decades (particularly in the 1930s and after the Great Recession in 2008/2009) but its primary modus operandi when it comes to guiding the economy have remained constant.
I would argue those policies are now outmoded and potentially even detrimental. Yes, there has always been some downside to the Fed’s work, but now — and here’s the crux of it — because of dramatic and unprecedented moves by the central bank recently, the collateral damage may be coming close to outweighing the benefits of the moves themselves.
Specifically, the Fed’s boosting of the economy by keeping interest rates low disproportionately helps rich people and thereby actually disadvantages those in need. To put a fine point on it, hedge fund types, corporate executives, hotshot techies and the like are becoming way, way richer, while working people, people with only a high school degree, people of color are falling further and further behind. This isn’t socialist bleating. These are facts, and the Fed is a party to it. As such, the Fed needs a wake-up call, or maybe a reset is a better way to put it.
I generally abhor Fed bashing. There is an entire cottage industry of mostly conspiracy-minded wingnuts, who howl that the Fed is either moving too early or too late or too much or too little, or is in cahoots with the Trilateral Commission to take over the world. I pay this little heed and suggest you do the same.
What I’m talking about though has nothing to do with harebrained stuff, rather it concerns a sophisticated, highly-regarded institution that has become locked into policies, which though well-intentioned are now producing consequences that can be construed as harmful to our society and economy.
Before I get into the particulars, let’s first be clear about what the Federal Reserve is. For one thing the Fed is a large and complex, (a “messy system” the Washington Post calls it), with “a dozen reserve banks based around the country, plus 20 smaller branch locations… and around 20,000 employees and $2.3 billion worth of real estate.
The Fed states that it “provides the nation with a safe, flexible and stable monetary and financial system.” To fulfill that role, the central bank performs a number of functions including regulating banks, settling payments between financial institutions like banks and promoting consumer protection. But when it comes to actually shepherding the economy, the central bank is informed by what’s called the Fed mandate, that being employment and stable prices.
Congress spelled this out by establishing the mandate in the The Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978 (the Humphrey-Hawkins Act) which “establishes price stability and full employment as national economic policy objectives.” Essentially that means trying to ensure as many people as possible have jobs and guarding against too much inflation (or deflation.) A key third objective is to provide for moderate long-term interest rates.
To accomplish these objectives, the Fed has utilized two primary mechanisms. The first has been to lower interest rates to boost the economy when it is slow, or slowing down, and raise them to prevent it from overheating. Since 2008 the Fed has kept rates rock bottom low to help the fragile economy, battered first by the Great Recession and recently by the pandemic.
The second strategy is buying and selling financial instruments and assets like bonds from banks, or what is known as quantitative easing (when it buys) and quantitative tightening (when it sells.) Buying serves to flood the financial system with cash that spurs the economy, which is what the Fed has been doing so much of lately.
Karen Petrou, managing partner of Federal Financial Analytics and the author of “Engine of Inequality: The Fed and the Future of Wealth in America,” notes in her opinion piece in the New York Times this week that: “assets the Fed has taken out of the economy as part of Q.E. (quantitative easing or buying) now stand at $8.1 trillion, or about one-third of gross domestic product.” That’s a lot.
It’s important to note here that low rates and goosing the economy does help people of color, lower educated women and other less wealthy groups, argues Michael Weber, an associate professor of finance at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. It’s just that it benefits the already advantaged more.
“Higher income and wealthier people hold stock, particularly white college educated Americans,” Weber says. “They benefit disproportionately more from loose monetary policy. If you put the pieces together, you would indeed see in the data lax monetary policy tends to increase income and wealth inequality.”
Many economists poo-poo the idea of trickle down economics, but in a sense that’s what the Fed's policies really are. It puts money into the hands of banks and wealthy people and then hopes they use that money to boost the economy by expanding businesses, hiring workers and giving them raises. But guess what? Banks and rich people haven’t done this enough. How do I know? Simple: Because wealth inequality keeps rising.
To be fair, much of the blame and responsibility here rests with Congress, which can employ its fiscal policy tools (such tax policy, the earned income tax credit and even a program like universal basic income — where every citizen would receive a government check each month.) It’s also the case that the Fed is using the tools it has at its disposal. Furthermore, of course the Fed doesn’t want to exacerbate wealth inequality. And yet that’s exactly what it keeps doing. It kind of reminds me of that old definition of insanity, as in doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.
The notion of inequality being linked to Fed actions has been getting more visibility. A year ago, then presidential candidate Joe Biden proposed that Congress amend the Federal Reserve Act to “add to that responsibility and aggressively target persistent racial gaps in job, wages, and wealth.”
'We need to achieve more inclusive prosperity'
The Fed itself seems to realize that it needs to change. In August 2020, it released a new strategic framework that suggests it will look at better ways of measuring a successful agenda, which would include all its programs benefiting all Americans. Fed Chair Jay Powell says that means it will look more closely at employment across gender and ethnic groups.
Last October, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco CEO Mary Daly, gave a speech titled “Is the Federal Reserve Contributing to Economic Inequality?” (which she did not answer directly, btw.) Daly did acknowledge however that the Fed needed to do more, noting that “we will not take the punch bowl away while so many remain on the economic sidelines.” (This is a reference to former Fed chair William McChesney Martin who in 1955 essentially said it was the job of the Fed to take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going. Meaning it should raise interest rates sooner rather than later to prevent an economic recovery from overheating.)
Daly went on to say:
“But the most critical aspect of our new framework is not about specific policies. Rather, it is about commitment. The commitment to regularly review our strategy to ensure it continues meeting the needs of the American people.
The ingredients of this ongoing review are simple. We need to listen, research, and engage. Keep our minds open to what we hear, bring the best data and analysis to the problems we find, and have hard, action-oriented conversations around the issues holding us back from achieving our full economic potential.”
Again, a little short on specifics and action points but fair enough.
Fed Chair Powell himself recently acknowledged that wealth inequality needed to be addressed: “There’s a growing realization, really across the political spectrum, that we need to achieve more inclusive prosperity,” Mr. Powell remarked to Congress last month, noted the New York Times. But he said the Fed couldn’t be expected to accomplish this on its own and that Congress would need to enact “a much broader set of policies.”
There seems to be a louder drumbeat coming from the media ranks as well. Besides Petrou’s Times piece, Frontline released “The Power of the Fed,” this week, which questions why the stock market players et al. benefit inordinately when the Fed “continues to pump billions of dollars into the financial system daily…” (Watch the trailer to hear the Will Lyman narration. I love his voice.)
OK, so what in fact should the Fed do? Some close to the central bank, like David Wilcox, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, former director of the Federal Reserve’s domestic economics division, and senior adviser to the past three Federal Reserve Chairs (Jerome Powell, Janet Yellen, and Ben Bernanke), say not much more than it’s already doing.
“Economic inequality is a serious problem, it’s something that has been trending in the wrong direction for many decades,” Wilcox says. “It’s something I believe should be addressed. It’s something that requires focused government policy actions to fix. But all of that is largely outside the range of capabilities that the Federal Reserve has."
“The best that the Fed can do to promote economic equality is to try to ensure as best it can that everybody who wants a job can find one, and that prices are going up at a slow, steady, and predictable pace. The only thing worse for inequality than the Fed doing its job would be for the Fed not to do its job. I don’t think the Fed should be given a broader set of powers.”
And what about the idea of different interest rates for specific regions of the country or for groups with less wealth versus those with more wealth, to pinpoint the Fed’s policies, we ask Wilcox?
“I’m not going to buy into the premise of the question,” he responds. “For one thing, it would be extremely difficult to design a system that would actually have its intended effect. It’s essential those policy tools you’re talking about be wielded by elected representatives of the people. If the Congress has been unable to meaningfully address these issues that to me is a strong signal that there is no political consensus around how best to address these issues.”
I’m not sure I agree with that last point. Consider all the things in which Congress can’t achieve consensus. Is there any reason that another branch of government, independent or otherwise — executive, judicial or the Fed — shouldn’t take action to address a pressing need?
Petrou, on the other hand, envisions a Fed which is more open to changing its stripes. First, she believes that the Fed is not interpreting its own mandate correctly. “If you read the law, you will see the first mandate varies between full and maximum employment, but is described as a job for every person who wants to work, which means paying attention to the labor participation rate, not just the nominal unemployment numbers,” she says. That means Petrou thinks the Fed should be holding itself to a higher standard when it comes to employment. Further Petrou says when it comes to interest rates, the third mandate speaks to moderate rates. “No way that rates close to zero are moderate,” she says.
So then what should the Fed do, Ms. Petrou? First like Wilcox, she does not believe in targeting specific groups with specific interest rates. “It’s structurally impossible, and from a policy perspective inadvisable," she says. “The less the Fed picks winners and losers, the better. They’re unelected, unaccountable, they should stick to their mission and make that mission as small a part of the macro economy as possible.”
Having said that, Petrou is prescriptive to a degree. “First, the Fed has made a series of egregious analytical errors,” she says. For example, “it showed household income up because more people were working more hours, but not because wages had risen. Another fix is the gradual but significant reduction in the Fed portfolio. So it no longer owns the market; the market owns itself."
“Another fix is that the Fed does not provide an iron safety net beneath the market, and allows bonds and other markets to correct themselves, so market discipline returns. The Fed has set markets up for asset price bubbles — that’s very dangerous and it needs to step back."
“Those fixes are all very doable,” she says. “I do not think it will lead to anything other than perhaps a slight slow down or market correction. Frankly, what's the alternative? Like a drug addict, it hurts, but what do you do, keep taking? You have to stop.”
Tough medicine indeed. The question is, would this withdrawal hurt just the wealthy and speculators, or those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder as well?
Certainly that is unclear.
What if the Fed, Treasury Secretary (and former Fed chair) Janet Yellen and congressional leaders from both parties, convened a summit on how the federal government should address inequality? I think it would be great. Unfortunately I also think it’s a pipe dream.
Getting back to the Fed, though, it is a remarkable institution filled with whip-smart folks who can run circles around this pea-brain writer. Like any 100-year-old entity, however, it can get stuck in its ways. Consider the Fed’s take on what it sees as slow gains in productivity in our economy. I remember hearing former Fed vice chair, Stanley Fischer, insisting that technology and cellphones had not really improved productivity. Fischer said the Fed couldn't find any significant gains brought on by laptop or cellphone use in their data. (That made me snarkily wonder if Fischer & Co. had ever even used these items.) The real question though is if you can’t see the effects in the way you measure something and it is blindingly obvious there is an effect, maybe your means of measuring are deficient or flawed and it’s time to change the way you do things.
Ditto when it comes to the Fed changing the way it addresses inequality.
This article was featured in a Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on July 17, 2021. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe
Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer