Stung by Trump, Fed chief gets fresh start with Biden

Stung by Trump, Fed chief gets fresh start with Biden
© Greg Nash

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell may finally catch a break from White House pressure and major disputes with the administration when President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenHow 'Buy American', other pro-US policies can help advocates pass ambitious climate policies Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Biden backtracks on Taiwan Photos of the Week: Manchin protestor, Paris Hilton and a mirror room MORE takes over in January. 

President TrumpDonald TrumpHillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Twitter's algorithm boosts right-leaning content, internal study finds Ohio Democrat calls Vance an 'ass----' over Baldwin tweet Matt Taibbi says Trump's rhetoric caused public perception of US intelligence services to shift MORE picked Powell to be the Fed chief, but then spent most of the next three years criticizing his policies while nominating loyalists to the board who could be chosen to replace him as soon as possible.

Powell seemed to have a close relationship with Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinMajor Russian hacking group linked to ransomware attack on Sinclair: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Biden jumps into frenzied Dem spending talks Former Treasury secretaries tried to resolve debt limit impasse in talks with McConnell, Yellen: report MORE, but even that frayed last month during a dispute over emergency lending facilities.

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Powell, however, is unlikely to face a constant barrage of attacks from Biden — an institutionalist intensely focused on bipartisanship.

Fed experts say Powell’s strong rapport with his predecessor and Treasury Secretary nominee Janet YellenJanet Louise YellenUS deficit hits .8 trillion, second largest in history Financial oversight panel unveils climate risk plan On The Money — Democrats eye tough choices as deadline looms MORE gives him a sympathetic partner deeply knowledgeable about the ins and outs of the central bank.

“I think Powell will find sailing the sea of monetary policy much easier with the strong tailwind from the Biden administration behind him,” said David Beckworth, senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center and a former Treasury Department economist.

Trump tapped Powell, a Republican, to replace Yellen as Fed chief in 2017 with the blessing of Mnuchin, who had worked with Powell closely on financial regulation throughout that year.

Powell’s term will expire in 2022 and it’s possible Biden will nominate someone else to lead the Fed at that time. Yet Powell is still likely to get a fresh start with the new administration, particularly if Yellen is confirmed at Treasury.

“Yellen, of course, has a deep institutional knowledge of the Fed. She still knows the staff there. she knows what it can do, she knows what it can do well, and she knows the limitations of what it can do well,” said Kathryn Judge, a law professor at Columbia University. “That's going to allow a productive working relationship.”

The two overlapped at the Fed from when Powell was confirmed as a Fed governor in 2012 through the end of Yellen’s term as chair in 2018. They share similar views on monetary policy, have effusively praised each other’s leadership of the central bank, and both err on the side of more ambitious fiscal stimulus in times of crisis.

Yellen and Powell could help enforce each other’s messages if the economy faces another downturn at the start of 2020, or if backlash to the Fed’s willingness to let inflation run slightly above average draws political fire from congressional Republicans.

Karen Shaw Petrou, managing partner of Federal Financial Analytics, said Yellen will take pains to avoid overstepping the wall of independence between Treasury and the Fed.

“However, when those monetary policy decisions raise fiscal policy concerns and broader macroeconomic ones, surely she will be asked about them and then I think we will see her strongly defending the Fed,” she said.

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Yellen and Powell were driving forces behind the Fed’s recent decision to adjust its approach to monetary policy to allow inflation to run above average to boost wages and drive unemployment lower after years of undershooting the bank’s target. But while they share similar monetary policy views, disputes over financial regulation could bubble up once Yellen takes office.

Yellen has fiercely defended Dodd-Frank banking regulations and has warned of other vulnerabilities in the financial system. As the incoming chair of the Financial Stability Oversight Council, Yellen may also steer the panel of federal regulators — which includes Powell — toward a more aggressive approach.

Powell, however, has supported rollbacks of some of those restrictions and has expressed a greater degree of confidence in the stability of the financial system. 

“I don't think that they're that far apart, but they're not exactly the same place,” said Ian Katz, director of the Washington, D.C., research firm Capital Alpha Partners. “He may be even closer to her on that in the regulatory arena than we think, but there are differences, and I do think she’ll want to be a bit more aggressive on regulation in general than he would be.”

Several upcoming Fed vacancies may also change that dynamic. Biden is likely to take office with one of the Fed’s seven board seats open, and he will get to pick a new Fed governor to replace Randal Quarles as the Fed vice chair of supervision when his term leading the bank’s regulatory activities ends in October.

Observers expect any differences between Yellen and Powell to be sorted out behind closed doors — not through the tweets and public disagreements that defined Powell’s early relationship with Trump and late break with Mnuchin. And as the economy continues to suffer under the coronavirus pandemic, their early work will likely focus on areas of wide agreement.

“In many ways, they’re hitting the ground running,” said Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University who studies the Fed.

“There's no period of trying to get to know the person on the other side,” she continued. “That greases the skids for making a productive relationship.”