Some Fear N.Y. Fed Too Heavily Influenced by Wall Street Ideology

New York Fed President William C. Dudley served 10 years as Goldman Sachs's chief economist.
New York Fed President William C. Dudley served 10 years as Goldman Sachs's chief economist. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
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By Neil Irwin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 20, 2009

NEW YORK -- The low-slung cubicles wrap around the ninth floor of a building three blocks from Wall Street, each manned by a young staffer staring at flashing numbers on a flat-screen computer monitor and working the phones to gather the latest chatter from financial markets around the world.

It could be any investment bank or hedge fund. Instead, it is the markets group of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which has been on the front lines of the government's response to the financial crisis. Federal Reserve and Treasury Department officials make the major decisions, but the New York Fed executes them.

The information gathered there provides crucial insights into the financial world for top policymakers. But the bank is so close to Wall Street -- physically, culturally and intellectually -- that some economic experts worry that the New York Fed puts the interests of the financial industry ahead of those of ordinary Americans.

"The New York Fed sticks out as being not just very, very close to Wall Street, but to the most powerful people on Wall Street," said Simon Johnson, an economist at MIT. "I worry that they pay too much deference to the expertise and presumed wisdom of a sector that screwed up massively."

Even some former insiders at the Fed say the bank does not pay enough attention to the fundamental flaws in the country's financial system or to the risks associated with bailing out financial firms -- for instance, the chance that banks will be encouraged to take more unwise gambles. These experts worry that the New York Fed has adopted the mindset of a trading floor: well attuned to ripples in financial markets but not to long-term trends and dangers.

Last month, for instance, Wall Street bond traders wanted the central bank to ramp up its purchase of Treasury bonds, which would help the traders by driving up prices. But Fed officials in Washington and around the country concluded that such a move would be counterproductive in the longer run, in contrast to some New York Fed staffers, whose views more closely mirrored those on Wall Street.

New York Fed employees "play a very valuable role, day in, day out, with detailed contacts with the big financial firms," said William Poole, a former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis who is now at the Cato Institute. "What I think is missing is a longer-run perspective. They tend to be sort of short-term in their outlook, which is true of a lot of the financial firms. Traders have a horizon of a few hours or a few weeks, at most."

The New York Fed's home is a fortresslike building, with bars securing the windows on lower floors. Its main lobby resembles a Gothic cathedral: dim, quiet, with stone walls, as if to inspire a mix of fear and awe.

Like the other 11 regional Federal Reserve banks, the New York Fed is a curious mix of public and private, part of a system Congress created in 1913 to avoid concentrated power in Washington or New York alone. Its board of directors is composed of bankers, businesspeople and community leaders, who select the bank president with approval from Fed governors in Washington. Banks in New York, Connecticut and parts of New Jersey own shares in the New York Fed, though its profits are returned to the U.S. Treasury.

The man in charge is a soft-spoken economist named William C. Dudley, who took over as president in January, replacing Timothy F. Geithner when he became Treasury secretary.

With a proclivity for button-down Oxford shirts and rumpled suits, Dudley does not fit the mold of a Wall Street executive. He has won fans across the Federal Reserve System for a collaborative style, as well as a talent for explaining complicated problems in the financial world and drawing up solutions to them.

It is his résumé that alarms some critics, who see an example of a too-cozy relationship between financial firms and their lead regulator. One of several bank officials who have worked in the private sector, Dudley was at Goldman Sachs for two decades, including 10 years as chief economist, before joining the New York Fed in 2007.

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