Yellen defends Fed independence, banking regulations

Martin Crutsinger
Associated Press

Washington — Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen defended the central bank’s independence Wednesday from Republican lawmakers who are pushing for major changes in how the central bank operates and how regulators oversee the nation’s banking system.

During a hearing that stretched over four hours, GOP lawmakers repeatedly challenged Yellen’s handling of the economy and her leadership in implementing the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, a measure that President Donald Trump and Republicans have vowed to overhaul.

Republicans pointedly told Yellen that she should realize that changes are underway with Republicans in control of the White House and both the House and Senate.

“After eight years there is zero evidence that zero interest rates and a bloated Fed balance sheet lead to a healthy economy,” House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, told Yellen. “Clearly, American have a newfound expectation that our economy will grow healthier with different policies coming out of Washington.”

Hensarling indicated that he would be pushing his legislation to limit the Fed’s independence by requiring the central bank to follow a numerical formula for setting interest rates and subject the Fed’s interest rate decisions to audit by the Government Accountability Office, the auditing arm of Congress.

Yellen told the panel she remained opposed to both proposals, arguing that while the Fed considers various formulas during its discussions on interest rates, no single formula offers the flexibility the Fed needs in making decisions. She said allowing the central bank to be second guessed by congressional auditors would be harmful to the independence the Fed needs to pursue correct policies.

“I think central banks all over the world have recognized that an independent central bank that can focus on the long-term health of the economy … gives rise to a better economic environment,” Yellen told the committee.

On monetary policy, Yellen repeated the testimony she delivered on Tuesday before the Senate Banking Committee. She indicated that the Fed, which has implemented two modest quarter-point interest rate hikes over the past two years, is likely to accelerate increases this year if the labor market remains healthy and inflation continues to move toward the Fed’s 2 percent target.

On bank regulation, Yellen agreed that Dodd-Frank regulations on the nation’s community banks were burdensome and needed to be modified. But she argued that the requirements imposed on the nation’s largest banks in terms of increasing the amount of capital they need to hold and in subjecting them to annual stress tests had made the financial system safer.

While Democrats voiced support for maintaining Dodd-Frank provisions, GOP lawmakers said the law needed a major overhaul. They urged Yellen to postpone adopting any further bank regulations until Trump is able to name a replacement for Daniel Tarullo, the Fed’s leading official on bank regulations. Tarullo announced last week he would be leaving the board in early April.

That will give Trump three vacancies to fill on the seven-member board, a fact that GOP lawmakers said should bring welcome changes in policy.

GOP lawmakers told Yellen that the Fed’s ultra-low interest rates and massive bond buying in the wake of the 2007-2009 recession had left the economy growing at the slowest pace for any economic recovery in the post-war period. Democrats, meanwhile, argued that the situation would have been much worse without the Fed’s support. They pointed to the nearly 16 million jobs created since the depths of the recession.

Yellen was pressed to say when the Fed would begin reducing the size of its more than $4 trillion balance sheet, which has grown with the Fed’s successive rounds of bond purchases aimed at lowering long term interest rates.

Yellen said that Fed officials do not feel the bond holdings should be reduced until the Fed has raised its benchmark rate, currently at a range of 0.5 percent to 0.75 percent, to a more normal level, which would give the Fed room to lower the rate if the economy was hit by an unexpected shock.