Sarah Binder & Mark Spindel on The Myth of Independence

Born out of crisis a century ago, the Federal Reserve has become the most powerful macroeconomic policymaker and financial regulator in the world. The Myth of Independence traces the Fed’s transformation from a weak, secretive, and decentralized institution in 1913 to a remarkably transparent central bank a century later. Offering a unique account of Congress’s role in steering this evolution, Sarah Binder and Mark Spindel explore the Fed’s past, present, and future and challenge the myth of its independence.

Why did you write this book?

We were intrigued by the relationship of two powerful institutions that are typically studied in isolation: Congress, overtly political and increasingly polarized, and the Federal Reserve, allegedly independent, born of an earlier financial panic and the world’s most powerful economic policy maker. The economic conditions that created and sustain America’s century old central bank have been well studied. Scholars and market participants have spent considerably less time analyzing the complex political forces that drove the Fed’s genesis and its rise to prominence. Our research challenges widely accepted notions of Fed independence, instead arguing that the Fed sets policy subject to political constraints. Its autonomy is conditioned on economic outcomes and robust political support. In the long shadow of the global financial crisis, our research pinpoints the interdependence of two powerful policy-making institutions and their impact on contemporary monetary politics.

What does history teach us about contemporary monetary politics?

Probing the Fed’s history affords us a window onto the political and economic constraints under which the Fed makes monetary policy today. We draw two key conclusions about contemporary monetary policy from our study of the Fed’s development.

First, the history of the relationship between Congress and the Fed reveals a recurring cycle of economic crisis, political blame, and institutional reform. When the economy is performing well, Congress tends to look the other way, leaving the Fed to pursue its statutory mandate to boost jobs and limit inflation. When the economy sours, lawmakers react by blaming the Fed and then counter-intuitively often giving the Fed more power. Legislative and central bank reactions in the wake of the most recent financial crisis fit this recurring theme. Even after blaming them, Congress further concentrated financial regulation in the Fed’s Board of Governors. Understanding the electoral dynamics that shape Congressional reactions helps to explain the puzzling decision to empower the Fed in the wake of crisis.

Second, economists and central bankers often argue that the Fed has instrument, but not goal, independence: Congress stipulates the Fed’s mandate but leaves the central bank to choose the tools necessary to achieve it. Our historical analysis suggests instead that Congress shapes both the monetary goals and tools. Creating and clipping emergency lending power, imposing greater transparency, influencing adoption of an inflation target—these and other legislative efforts directly shape the Fed’s conduct. Even today, monetary policy remains under siege, as lawmakers on the left and right remain dissatisfied with the Fed’s performance in driving the nation’s economic recovery from the Great Recession.

What new light do you shed on the notion of central bank independence?

Placing the Fed within the broader political system changes our understanding of the nature and primacy of central bank independence.

First, economists prize central bank independence on grounds that it keeps inflation low and stable. However, we show that ever since the Great Depression, Congressional majorities have typically demanded the Fed place equal weight on generating growth and controlling inflation—diminishing the importance of central bank autonomy to lawmakers. Moreover, we demonstrate that the seminal Treasury-Fed Accord of 1951—a deal that most argue cemented the Fed’s independence—tethered the Fed more closely to Congress even as it broke the Fed’s subordination to the Treasury.

Second, prescriptions for central bank independence notwithstanding, fully separating fiscal and monetary policy is complicated. During the Fed’s first half-century, fiscal policy was monetary policy. The Fed underwrote U.S. government borrowing, either willingly or unwillingly enabling the spending objectives of the executive and legislative branches. Even after the 1951 Fed-Treasury Accord, macro-economic outcomes have played a determinative role in shaping U.S. fiscal policy. And most recently, the Fed’s adoption of unconventional monetary policy in the wake of the financial crisis pushed interest rates to zero and ballooned the Fed’s balance sheet—leading many Fed critics to argue that the Fed had crossed the line into Congress’s fiscal domain. Importantly, even strict proponents of monetary independence recognize that exigent conditions often demand collaboration between the central bank and government, complicating monetary politics.

Third, the myth of Fed independence is convenient for elected officials eager to blame the Fed for poor economic outcomes. In fact, Congress and the Fed are interdependent: the Fed operates very much within the political structure in Washington. The Federal Reserve Act—the governing law—has been consistently reopened and revised, particularly after extraordinary economic challenges. Each time, Congress centralizes more control in the Fed’s Washington-based Board of Governors, in exchange for more central bank transparency and congressional accountability. Because Fed “independence” rests with Congress’s tolerance of the Fed’s policy performance, we argue that the Fed earns partial and contingent independence from Congress, and thus hardly any independence at all.

How does intense partisan polarization in Washington today affect the Fed?

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, like most national institutions, the Federal Reserve has been caught in the cross hairs of contemporary partisan polarization. Politicians of both stripes call for changes to the governance and powers of the Fed. Most prominently, we see bipartisan efforts to audit Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) decisions. On the right, a vocal GOP cohort demands an unwinding of the Fed’s big balance sheet and a more formulaic approach to monetary policy. On the left, Democrats want greater diversity on the rosters of the Fed’s regional reserve banks. With the 2016 elections delivering government control to Republicans, prospects for reopening the Federal Reserve Act are heightened.

Several vacancies on the Board of Governors give President Trump and Republican senators another opportunity to air grievances and exert control. Trump inherits a rare opportunity to nominate a majority of members to the FOMC, including the power to appoint a new chair in early 2018 should he wish to replace Janet Yellen. Will he turn to more traditional monetary “hawks,” who seek to rollback crisis-era policies, thus tightening monetary policy? Or will Trump bend towards a more ideologically dovish chair, trading some inflation for a pro-growth agenda?

Washington leaves a large—and politicized—mark on the Federal Reserve. The Myth of Independence seeks to place these overtly political decisions into broader, historical perspective, exploring how the interdependence of Congress and the Federal Reserve shapes politics, the economy and financial markets. As Ben Bernanke expressed, “absent the support of some future White House, although it might be difficult to get passed and signed legislation that poses a serious challenge to the basic powers of the Fed, it unfortunately would not be impossible.”

BinderSarah Binder is professor of political science at George Washington University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Her books include Advice and Dissent and Stalemate. Mark Spindel has spent his entire career in investment management at such organizations as Salomon Brothers, the World Bank, and Potomac River Capital, a Washington D.C.–based hedge fund he started in 2007.