WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden announced Monday that he’s nominating Jerome Powell for a second four-year term as Federal Reserve chair, endorsing Powell’s stewardship of the economy through a brutal pandemic recession in which the Fed’s ultra-low rate policies helped bolster confidence and revitalize the job market.
Biden also said he would nominate Lael Brainard, the lone Democrat on the Fed’s Board of Governors and the preferred alternative to Powell among many progressives, as vice chair, the No. 2 slot.
A separate position of vice chair for supervision, a bank regulatory post, remains vacant, along with two other slots on the Fed’s board. Those positions will be filled in early December, the president said.
Biden’s decision, reached after extensive consideration, strikes a note of continuity and bipartisanship at a time when surging inflation is burdening households and raising risks to the economy’s recovery. In backing Powell, a Republican who was first elevated to his post by President Donald Trump, Biden brushed aside complaints from progressives that the Fed has weakened bank regulation and has been slow to take account of climate change in its supervision of banks.
“If we want to continue to build on the economic success of this year, we need stability and independence at the Federal Reserve — and I have full confidence after their trial by fire over the last 20 months that Chair Powell and Dr. Brainard will provide the strong leadership our country needs,” Biden said in a statement.
In a second term, to begin in February, Powell would face a difficult and high-risk balancing act: Rising inflation is causing hardships for millions of families, clouding the economic recovery and undercutting the Fed’s mandate to keep prices stable. But with the economy still 4 million-plus jobs shy of its pre-pandemic level, the Fed has yet to meet its other mandate of maximizing employment.
Next year, the Fed is widely expected to begin raising rates, at least once if not more. If the Fed moves too slowly to raise rates, inflation may accelerate further and force the central bank to take more draconian steps later to rein it in, potentially causing a recession. Yet if the Fed hikes rates too quickly, it could choke off hiring and the economic recovery.
Powell’s re-nomination must be approved in a vote by the Senate Banking Committee and then confirmed by the full Senate, which is considered very likely.
If confirmed, Powell would remain one of the most powerful economic officials in the world. By either raising or lowering its benchmark interest rate, the Fed seeks to either cool or stimulate growth and hiring, and to keep prices stable. Its efforts to direct the U.S. economy, the largest in the world, typically have global consequences.
The Fed’s short-term rate, which has been pegged near zero since the pandemic hammered the economy in March 2020, influences a wide range of consumer and business borrowing costs, including for mortgages and credit cards. The Fed also oversees the nation’s largest banks.
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The chair of the Senate Banking panel, Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, and the committee’s senior Republican, Pat Toomey, both immediately endorsed Powell on Monday.
“I look forward to working with Powell to stand up to Wall Street and stand up for workers, so that they share in the prosperity they create,” Brown said.
Toomey said that while he has disagreed with Powell’s continuation of the Fed’s ultra-low-rates policies, “his recent comments give me confidence that he recognizes the risks of higher and more persistent inflation and is willing to act accordingly to control it.”
Powell, a 68-year-old lawyer by training, was nominated for the Fed’s Board of Governors in 2011 by President Barack Obama after having built a lucrative career in private equity and having served in a number of federal government roles.
Unlike his three immediate predecessors, Powell lacks a Ph.D. in economics. Yet he has earned generally high marks for managing perhaps the most important financial position in the world, especially in his response to the coronavirus-induced recession.
The subsequent spike in inflation has forced the Powell Fed to dial back its economic stimulus sooner than it had envisioned. At its latest meeting in early November, the central bank said it would start reducing its monthly bond purchases and likely end them by mid-2022. Those purchases have been intended to keep longer-term borrowing costs low to spur borrowing and spending.
Powell has avoided much of the blame, at least on Capitol Hill, for the jump in inflation to a three-decade high, even though one of the Fed’s mandates is to maintain stable prices through its control of interest rates. Republicans in Congress have instead pointed to President Joe Biden’s economic policies as the main culprit.
For months, Powell characterized inflation as “transitory” and said it mainly reflected unusual supply-chain bottlenecks stemming from the pandemic and from a surge in demand for goods such as autos, furniture, electronics, and appliances.
More recently, the Fed chair conceded that higher prices have persisted longer than he had expected and have broadened to such categories as rents and medical care that aren’t directly related to supply shortages. At a news conference this month, Powell acknowledged that high inflation could last into late summer 2022.
Brainard’s elevation to the Fed’s No. 2 position follows the key role she played in the Fed’s emergency response to the pandemic recession. She is part of a “troika” of top policymakers that includes Powell and Richard Clarida, whose term as vice chair will end in January.
Brainard was also an architect of the Fed’s new policy framework, adopted in August 2020, under which it said it would no longer raise rates simply because the unemployment rate had fallen to a low level that could spur inflation. Instead, the Fed said it would await actual evidence that prices are rising. That reflects a view among some Fed officials that low unemployment and even rising wages no longer necessarily accelerate inflation.
Yet that new policy approach, which was crafted in an atmosphere of persistently low inflation, has come under heavy pressure this year as inflation has surged.
Brainard also played a key role in the Fed’s re-definition of its maximum employment goal as “broad and inclusive.” That means it now takes into account such measures as the unemployment rate for African Americans, and not just for Americans as a whole, in its policy decisions.
But her most far-reaching role was helping Powell direct the Fed’s response to the brutal pandemic recession. In the spring of 2020, as businesses shut down and 22 million Americans were laid off, the Powell Fed slashed its key short-term rate to zero. To restore confidence in the banking system, the Fed unleashed a suite of emergency lending programs.
It also bought corporate bonds for the first time, as well as municipal bonds, to steady financial markets. And the central bank purchased $4.2 trillion in Treasurys and mortgage-backed bonds to keep longer-term interest rates low.
Still, the Fed also took steps that loosened financial regulations put in place after the 2008-2009 financial crisis and recession, prompting Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, to call Powell “a dangerous man” to lead the Fed.
– Christopher Rugaber
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