WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It wasn’t a fair fight. A Republican-controlled committee of the U.S. House of Representatives pitted three outspoken critics of the Federal Reserve against a lonesome dove, who tried his best to defend the central bank against charges it was ruining the country.
Entitled “Near-zero rates, near zero effect? Is unconventional monetary policy really working?”, the hearing on Tuesday before the subcommittee on monetary policy sought to explore the risks of ultra-bold Fed actions to spur U.S. growth.
It also allowed lawmakers to air numerous grievances over the U.S. central bank. These grievances have spurred a rash of legislative proposals - from removing the pursuit of full employment from the Fed’s dual mandate, to abolishing the central bank altogether.
“Adopt a rule that restricts what the Federal Reserve can do without your permission,” Allan Meltzer, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who has written a highly regarded history of the Fed, urged lawmakers in his remarks to the subcommittee.
At least five bills to reform how the Fed conducts monetary policy have been proposed by Republicans in Congress already this year.
None have a realistic chance of becoming law while Democrats hold sway in the U.S. Senate and run the White House. But the potential threat to the Fed’s independence could grow if Democrats lose their Senate majority in midterm elections in November 2014.
Unease over dramatic monetary policy measures to restore U.S. economic growth and bring down the unemployment rate, which remains high at 7.9 percent, is not confined to Republican lawmakers.
Fed policymakers themselves are divided over the actions. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has faced serial dissents from a handful of policy hawks opposed to the central bank’s bond buying, although the vast majority have backed the steps he has championed.
But Republicans on Capitol Hill, some of whom rode in to Washington supported by voter anger over the Fed’s involvement in the bailout of Wall Street banks during the 2007-2009 financial crisis, have led the attack and are gunning for the Fed for several reasons.
They were furious when it announced a third round of massive bond buying a few weeks before the November 2012 general election, claiming that this deliberately helped President Barack Obama, a Democrat, win a second White House term.
Fiscal conservatives in the party have also slammed the Fed’s purchases of Treasury bonds for enabling what they say is runaway government spending by the Obama administration, something that they say will spur much higher inflation down the road.
Meltzer was flanked by economists John Taylor, author of the well-known Taylor Rule of central banking, and David Malpass, a former adviser to Republican presidents and chief economist at investment bank Bear Stearns, an early casualty of the crisis when it collapsed five years ago.
All three slammed the Fed for holding interest rates near zero since late 2008 and for bond purchases that have tripled the size of the Fed’s balance sheet to around $3 trillion.
“I think Federal Reserve policies have been weakening and distorting the economy rather than providing stimulus,” said Malpass. “The policies are hurting savers, distorting markets, and redistributing capital rather than increasing it.”
Fed critics complain that low interest rates are driving investors to “reach for yield” by shifting into riskier assets that could fan another asset bubble, courting a repeat of the financial crisis that tipped the United States into recession in late 2007.
Bernanke confronted this complaint head-on in a speech on Friday, in which he proceeded to take the criticism apart.
“In light of the moderate pace of the recovery and the continued high level of economic slack, dialing back accommodation with the goal of deterring excessive risk-taking in some areas poses its own risks to growth, price stability, and, ultimately, financial stability,” Bernanke warned.
The Fed’s solitary ally on the panel before Tuesday’s hearing, Joseph Gagnon of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, urged the Fed go even further to stimulate the recovery.
“I believe America needs more expansionary policy. The current stance of monetary policy is still too tight,” Gagnon, a former senior economist at the Fed Board in Washington, told lawmakers. The recommendation was greeted with silence.
Reporting by Alister Bull; Editing by Leslie Adler