Famed economist Stanley Fischer opened his confirmation hearing Thursday to become vice chairman of the Federal Reserve by advocating for the central bank to pay close attention to financial stability.
The Fed has long had a congressional mandate to foster maximum employment and guard against inflation. But after the financial crisis surprised many at the central bank, lawmakers and economists alike felt the Fed should broaden its scope.
“The Great Recession has driven home the lesson that the Fed has not only to fulfill its dual mandate, but also to contribute its part to the maintenance of the stability of the financial system,” Fischer told the Senate banking committee. “Almost always, these goals are complementary. But each of them must be an explicit focus of Fed policy.”
The role of the Fed in preventing and popping bubbles has become one of the major debates within the central bank. Lawmakers peppered Fischer, along with two other nominees to the Fed — former Treasury official Lael Brainard and renominated Fed governor Jerome Powell — with questions on their views of the effectiveness of reforms to the banking system since the crisis and whether the Fed will be able to unwind its massive stimulus efforts without disrupting the markets.
There is broad agreement that the Fed, in conjunction with other regulatory agencies, bears responsibility for preventing dramatic economic swings. But how it should accomplish that remains open to interpretation. Some Fed officials, such as governors Daniel Tarullo and Jeremy Stein, have suggested that the central bank consider raising interest rates to combat excessively risky behavior. Others, including former Fed chairman Ben S. Bernanke, argued that the Fed’s expanded regulatory toolkit was sufficient for the job.
Though all three nominees referenced the importance of financial stability, they largely steered clear of specifics Thursday. Fischer, who until last summer ran the Bank of Israel, acknowledged that volatility could increase as the Fed scales back the amount of money it is pumping into the economy and moves closer to raising short-term interest rates. He pointed to the roller-coaster ride in the stock and bond markets last spring as an example, saying he was perplexed by the intensity of investors’ reaction.
“I’m not exactly sure why the markets thought it was a surprise,” Fischer told lawmakers. “The Fed is relying more on the reactions of the market, and those you have to adjust to.”
During the January meeting of the Fed’s policy-setting committee, officials discussed addressing the importance of financial stability in the carefully worded official statement released at the end of each session. Though such language was not included, the possibility could come up once more when officials convene again next week.
Many economists, including some officials within the Fed’s top ranks, worry that five years of interest rates at zero could be encouraging the next bubble. With the decision late last year to begin reducing its bond-buying program, the Fed took the first step away from crisis mode. Fischer said Thursday that he believed the central bank is on its way to returning to more normal policies.
“The exit is beginning,” he said.