DENVER (Reuters) - One thing’s for sure: no one at the Federal Reserve is leaping out of their chair to defend the central bank’s mandate to ensure full employment from proposals it focus solely on delivering price stability.
As it currently stands, the Fed is assigned by law “to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.”
But some members of Congress are unhappy with the Fed’s recently launched $600 billion bond buying program, which officials at the central bank say is needed in part because unemployment has been stuck at elevated levels for almost two years.
Republican lawmakers eager to deliver spending cuts and stripped-down government in the wake of electoral gains in November resent the Fed’s readiness to rev up its printing presses. Some think the Fed is straying into fiscal policy, which should be the responsibility of Congress, and feel a stricter focus on inflation would clear things up.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke in testimony to Congress on Friday voiced no objections to the debate.
“We’re not seeking any change. We think the current mandate is workable,” he said. “That being said, we think it’s entirely appropriate for the Senate and the Congress to consider what mandate they want to set.”
Even Fed officials who have argued for aggressive efforts to spur stronger economic growth appear to agree that a simpler mandate might be an advantage.
“In a clean discussion of what the appropriate role for a central bank is, I can see some merit in looking at a narrower objective,” Chicago Federal Reserve Bank President Charles Evans told reporters after speaking to a conference here on Friday.
Evans, who rotates into a voting slot on the Fed’s policy-setting panel this year, is one of the more outspoken supporters of the central bank’s bond buying program.
However, he said monetary policy is best suited for dealing with inflationary issues and is not easily targeted at specific sectors of the economy that need help.
Like Evans, St. Louis Fed President James Bullard has also approached the debate from an academic perspective.
While Bullard says the conversation is worth having, he has declined to say whether he would support or oppose a change.
“It’s interesting,” he said in November. “The ECB (European Central Bank) has a price stability mandate ... The only thing a central bank can do in the long run is control the long run rate of inflation, so from that point of view it makes sense to have single mandate.”
Fed officials have long argued that delivering low and stable inflation is the best way to ensure maximum employment over time. With inflation running well below the implied target of close to 2 percent the Fed shoots for, easy monetary policy is called for by both sides of the central bank’s mandate.
Evans said he is comfortable with the Fed’s dual mandate and believes an emphasis on helping the weak job market is currently appropriate.
“I think at the moment, if we had a single mandate for price stability, I would be arguing for exactly the same policies,” he said.
But top Republicans think a narrower brief might restrain a Fed that has become too activist. Mike Pence, No. 3 Republican in the House said the Fed’s dual mandate had “failed.”
“With no explicit plan for when or how this quantitative easing will be withdrawn, the Federal Reserve could do more for the American economy by focusing singularly on maintaining the value of the dollar and protecting the purchasing power of Americans,” Pence said in November.
Bob Corker, a Senate banking committee member, is another supporter. However, with the Democrats in control of the White House and the Senate, a move to strip the Fed’s employment mandate would be unlikely to gain sufficient backing to become law.
“It would be difficult politically to support a move right now that could be seen as saying that unemployment is unimportant,” said Douglas Elliott, a Brookings Institution fellow.
Fed nominee Peter Diamond, an MIT professor and a Nobel laureate, has said retaining an employment mandate is essential to the role of the U.S. central bank. Even central banks that have only price stability as their objective find themselves taking policy steps in response to the unemployment situation, he said.
Republicans have blocked Diamond’s nomination twice on the grounds he lacks experience. President Barack Obama nominated him for a third time last week.
With unemployment expected to remain stubbornly high for years, the Fed may be happy to no longer be held directly accountable for a difficult assignment.
“One of the things about having a mandate is that you’ll be judged by it,” Elliott said. “If part of your job is to keep unemployment down and it’s high, people will yell.”
Reporting by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Diane Craft