The Reagan administration has begun a provisional search for a successor to Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul A. Volcker in case President Reagan chooses not to reappoint him when his term expires in August.
"No one has been approached, no one has been asked about the job," a senior administration official said last week, but a "low-key" search--with which Reagan so far has had no involvement--is under way to identify other candidates to head the nation's central bank.
"The president has to consider it asking Volcker to stay and he also has to consider alternative candidates and then see whether they match or better the proven record that Volcker has, warts and all," said the senior official, who asked not to be named.
From an economic standpoint the reappointment decision could be the most important Reagan makes this year, but it will be an important political decision as well. Volcker is a symbol of the high interest rates and recession of the last few years. Democrats lustily attack him for this, and Republicans flinch; House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) is one of several who has said Volcker should not be reappointed.
Yet the same tight money-high interest rate policies that produced recession also helped bring down inflation. For this reason Volcker is also a symbol, and a reassuring one, in the financial world. Some in the administration think Volcker could have squeezed out the inflation with less recession.
"Yeah, he's a good man for the country," said one. "He has symbolic value. Whether it's deserved or not, he has it. Statues do have clay feet."
In any case his reappointment probably will depend in part on how he and the economy behave over the next several months. The economy has begun to recover and the money supply has ballooned in recent months. Does Volcker let this ride for a while or does he go back to fighting inflation and tighten up?
He is probably damned either way, as Fed chairmen always are. But he may be especially damned if he tightens up. Such influential Republicans as Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (N.M.) and John Heinz (Pa.), who support him now, have warned that they will turn against Volcker if he lets interest rates rise again soon and chokes off the recovery.
Squeezes like this are the stuff of life for Volcker. Appointed by President Carter in 1979, when the United States needed greatly to reassure other nations it would move to shore up a beleaguered American dollar, he promptly came under fire from Carter in 1980 when the Fed's anti-inflation actions produced record-high interest rates and a recession. Later that year, on the eve of the election, the Fed began to boost interest rates again to restrain a bulging money supply.
As a Carter appointee, Volcker's relationship with Reagan has been almost nonexistent. He met last month with Reagan for the first time in a year, with White House chief of staff James A. Baker III and Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan the only other persons present. After the meeting, which was an amiable one over drinks upstairs in the White House residence, spokesman Larry Speakes said the two men are now "on the same wave length."
Many administration officials, including Regan, have sharply criticized the Fed and its chairman for what they regard as an unnecessarily tight and volatile monetary policy over the last two years. That policy, they believe, kept interest rates higher than they should have been, directly contributing to last year's severe recession and to some of the Republican congressional losses in the 1982 elections.
Had Volcker been more deft, they say, the administration could have come much closer to delivering on its twin promises of reduced inflation but increased growth when it took office. But others argue that combination was never possible and the recession was necessary to bring down the inflation rate. Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Martin Feldstein, who joined the administration last August and thus had no hand in formulating the original claims, has said a rise in unemployment probably was an inevitable part of reducing inflation.
Feldstein is one of the few administration officials willing to praise Volcker and the central bank.
"The Fed has a very, very tough job and they are doing it well," he said in an interview. "The real problem in monetary policy now is an inevitable uncertainty" about the recent sharp expansion of the money supply and what it means for the recovery and future levels of inflation.
Major changes in regulation of financial institutions are responsible for part of the uncertainty surrounding monetary policy at the moment. The advent of new types of accounts, such as the popular money market deposit accounts that have garnered more than $310 billion in deposits in less than three months, have overwhelmed traditional analysis of changes in the money supply.
In addition, during 1982 the normal ratios between money growth and economic activity failed to hold up. Now economists are uncertain whether past patterns will be reestablished. If they are not, faster money growth than in the past would be required to accommodate a given rate of economic expansion.
Some say there is no way Volcker can dispel the doubt all these factors have produced. Others, including some in the administration, fault him for not spelling out his policy intentions more clearly.
"Volcker has created this mish-mash of policy. No one knows what he is doing," complained another administration official who declined to be identified.
Volcker refuses to discuss the issue of his reappointment with anyone save his wife, according to his own account. He has given the administration no indication whether he would like to be named to another four-year term, and when asked at one congressional hearing whether he would like to stay on, Volcker snapped, "I don't seek jobs."
Initially, Reagan aides thought that Volcker did not want to be reappointed, partly because of family considerations and obvious opportunities for well-paying private jobs. Now they feel uncertain about what he wants.
What the president wants is also uncertain.
"The conflicting considerations are that any president would want to put his own stamp on the Federal Reserve," said a White House official. "But the financial community holds Volcker in high regard" and replacing him could be a disturbing signal to those markets.
Politics is a third consideration. House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) and Majority Leader James C. Wright (D-Tex.) have been critical of Volcker. After the Fed chairman at one hearing expressed some uneasiness about the jump in money supply, Rep. Fernand J. St Germain (D-R.I.), chairman of the House Banking Committee, declared, "This Congress will not tolerate a return to flinty-eyed monetarism, high interest rates, and recession. Our citizens have suffered under three years of miscreant monetarism, and the time to stay with recovery is upon us."
For similar reasons but from the opposite party, Minority Leader Michel has said he does not think Volcker should be reapppointed.
In the Senate, however, Banking Committee Chairman Jake Garn (R-Utah) has praised the Fed chairman, saying, "My inclination would be that the best course is to keep him there." Chairman Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) of the Finance Committee agreed.
Administration officials, noting that of all the Fed chairmen only Volcker and Arthur F. Burns have been economists, indicate that they are interested in candidates with more than just an academic background in economics. "We want someone with a taste of the real world and administrative experience," said one official.
Another official stressed the administrative side of the job. "If you think of it in terms of . . . what is the guy supposed to do, he's supposed to administer the banking system of the United States. That's his primary job. The monetary part of it is secondary."
As part of their search, administration officials are looking widely among prominent Republican businessmen, bankers and economists for names to add to their list of alternative candidates.
Preston Martin, vice chairman of the Fed, who was named by Reagan last year has been widely rumored to have a "lock" on the job if Volcker is not reappointed. But the officials conducting the search say that is not so.
Martin "was told when he was selected that this did not imply anything nor did anyone promise him anything" about the chairmanship, said one. "He could expect to be a candidate along with a lot of others, but that mantle would not fall on him automatically ."
One senior administration official pointed to Reagan's economic advisory board as a potential source of candidates. The board is chaired by Walter Wriston, chairman of Citibank, who has ruled himself out as a candidate.
Another member of the economic advisory board being mentioned as a candidate is Martin Anderson, an economist who was White House domestic affairs adviser in Reagan's first year. Others include Alan Greenspan and Paul McCracken, former chairmen of the CEA in Republican administrations, and Marina Whitman, a former CEA member who is chief economist at General Motors.
One industrialist mentioned is Ruben F. Mettler, chairman and chief executive officer of TRW Inc., a $5 billion industrial conglomerate, who holds a Ph.D. in electrical and aeronautical engineering.
There are at least two other potential candidates from the Fed, according to administration officials. One is E. Gerald Corrigan, an economist who is a former special assistant to Volcker and now president of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank. The other is William F. Ford, Corrigan's counterpart in Atlanta, who formerly was chief economist for Wells Fargo Bank.