Bernanke: Five questions about the Federal Reserve and monetary policy

How Is the Federal Reserve Held Accountable in a Democratic Society? I will turn, finally, to the question of how the Federal Reserve is held accountable in a democratic society.

The Federal Reserve was created by the Congress, now almost a century ago. In the Federal Reserve Act and subsequent legislation, the Congress laid out the central bank's goals and powers, and the Fed is responsible to the Congress for meeting its mandated objectives, including fostering maximum employment and price stability. At the same time, the Congress wisely designed the Federal Reserve to be insulated from short-term political pressures. For example, members of the Federal Reserve Board are appointed to staggered, 14-year terms, with the result that some members may serve through several Administrations. Research and practical experience have established that freeing the central bank from short-term political pressures leads to better monetary policy because it allows policymakers to focus on what is best for the economy in the longer run, independently of near-term electoral or partisan concerns. All of the members of the Federal Open Market Committee take this principle very seriously and strive always to make monetary policy decisions based solely on factual evidence and careful analysis.

It is important to keep politics out of monetary policy decisions, but it is equally important, in a democracy, for those decisions--and, indeed, all of the Federal Reserve's decisions and actions--to be undertaken in a strong framework of accountability and transparency. The American people have a right to know how the Federal Reserve is carrying out its responsibilities and how we are using taxpayer resources.

One of my principal objectives as Chairman has been to make monetary policy at the Federal Reserve as transparent as possible. We promote policy transparency in many ways. For example, the Federal Open Market Committee explains the reasons for its policy decisions in a statement released after each regularly scheduled meeting, and three weeks later we publish minutes with a detailed summary of the meeting discussion. The Committee also publishes quarterly economic projections with information about where we anticipate both policy and the economy will be headed over the next several years. I hold news conferences four times a year and testify often before congressional committees, including twice-yearly appearances that are specifically designated for the purpose of my presenting a comprehensive monetary policy report to the Congress. My colleagues and I frequently deliver speeches, such as this one, in towns and cities across the country.

The Federal Reserve is also very open about its finances and operations. The Federal Reserve Act requires the Federal Reserve to report annually on its operations and to publish its balance sheet weekly. Similarly, under the financial reform law enacted after the financial crisis, we publicly report in detail on our lending programs and securities purchases, including the identities of borrowers and counterparties, amounts lent or purchased, and other information, such as collateral accepted. In late 2010, we posted detailed information on our public website about more than 21,000 individual credit and other transactions conducted to stabilize markets during the financial crisis. And, just last Friday, we posted the first in an ongoing series of quarterly reports providing a great deal of information on individual discount window loans and securities transactions. The Federal Reserve's financial statement is audited by an independent, outside accounting firm, and an independent Inspector General has wide powers to review actions taken by the Board. Importantly, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has the ability to--and does--oversee the efficiency and integrity of all of our operations, including our financial controls and governance.

While the GAO has access to all aspects of the Fed's operations and is free to criticize or make recommendations, there is one important exception: monetary policymaking. In the 1970s, the Congress deliberately excluded monetary policy deliberations, decisions, and actions from the scope of GAO reviews. In doing so, the Congress carefully balanced the need for democratic accountability with the benefits that flow from keeping monetary policy free from short-term political pressures.

However, there have been recent proposals to expand the authority of the GAO over the Federal Reserve to include reviews of monetary policy decisions. Because the GAO is the investigative arm of the Congress and GAO reviews may be initiated at the request of members of the Congress, these reviews (or the prospect of reviews) of individual policy decisions could be seen, with good reason, as efforts to bring political pressure to bear on monetary policymakers. A perceived politicization of monetary policy would reduce public confidence in the ability of the Federal Reserve to make its policy decisions based strictly on what is good for the economy in the longer term. Balancing the need for accountability against the goal of insulating monetary policy from short-term political pressure is very important, and I believe that the Congress had it right in the 1970s when it explicitly chose to protect monetary policy decisionmaking from the possibility of politically motivated reviews.

Conclusion In conclusion, I will simply note that these past few years have been a difficult time for the nation and the economy. For its part, the Federal Reserve has also been tested by unprecedented challenges. As we approach next year's 100th anniversary of the signing of the Federal Reserve Act, however, I have great confidence in the institution. In particular, I would like to recognize the skill, professionalism, and dedication of the employees of the Federal Reserve System. They work tirelessly to serve the public interest and to promote prosperity for people and businesses across America. The Fed's policy choices can always be debated, but the quality and commitment of the Federal Reserve as a public institution is second to none, and I am proud to lead it.

Now that I've answered questions that I've posed to myself, I'd be happy to respond to yours.

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