Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton said she would support changes to the top ranks of the Federal Reserve, an issue recently championed by progressive groups amid debate over how long the central bank should keep supporting the American economy.
The Fed is led by a seven-member board of governors based in Washington and a dozen regional bank presidents based across the country, from New York to Kansas City to San Francisco. The governors are nominated by the White House and approved by the Senate, but regional bank presidents are selected by their boards of directors, whose occupants are chosen by the banking industry and by the Fed governors in Washington.
In a statement to The Washington Post, Clinton’s campaign said she supports removing bankers from the boards of directors and increasing diversity within the Fed.
"The Federal Reserve is a vital institution for our economy and the well-being of our middle class, and the American people should have no doubt that the Fed is serving the public interest,” spokesman Jesse Ferguson said. “That's why Secretary Clinton believes that the Fed needs to be more representative of America as a whole and that commonsense reforms — like getting bankers off the boards of regional Federal Reserve banks — are long overdue.”
The statement puts Clinton on the same page as her rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. In an op-ed in the New York Times in December, he said removing bankers from the Fed’s governance would mean “the foxes would no longer guard the henhouse.”
On Thursday, Sanders and top Democratic lawmakers called on the Fed to increase the number of minorities in leadership positions. They also urged the central bank to consider the high unemployment rate among some racial groups as it debates whether to keep pulling back its support for the American economy.
In a letter to Fed Chair Janet Yellen, the lawmakers argued that more minority representation would help broaden the Fed’s internal discussions about the health of the economy. In addition to Sanders, 10 senators signed the letter, including banking committee members Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Robert Menendez of New Jersey. More than 100 congressmen joined the effort, which was led in the House by Michigan Rep. John Conyers and gained support from California Rep. Maxine Waters, ranking member of the House financial services committee.
“Given the critical linkage between monetary policy and the experiences of hardworking Americans, the importance of ensuring that such positions are filled by persons that reflect and represent the interests of our diverse country, cannot be understated,” the letter states. “When the voices of women, African-Americans, Latinos, and representatives of consumers and labor are excluded from key discussions, their interests are too often neglected.”
Donald Trump, the GOP’s presumptive nominee, did not return a request for comment.
The leaders of the Fed are responsible for steering the ship of the American economy, setting a benchmark interest rate that can influence the cost of borrowing money for everything from a car, to a home to a factory. They also regulate the country’s biggest banks and help ensure the nation's financial system can withstand another crisis, making them among the most influential policymakers in the world.
Those officials tend to be white males. Yellen is the first woman to serve as chair in the central bank’s 101-year history. Only three Fed governors have been African American, and there have been no black regional bank presidents. No one now in the top brass is Hispanic.
In addition, an analysis by the progressive Center for Popular Democracy found that 83 percent of the boards of directors are white and three-fourths are male. The group also found that 39 percent of directors come from the financial industry, while 11 percent are from community groups, labor organizations or academia.
There are nine seats on the boards of directors. Under current law, three are required to be filled by representatives of the banking industry. However, they are not allowed to participate in choosing reserve bank presidents — the officials who would be responsible for setting the nation’s monetary policy. The bank president must also win approval from the Fed's politically appointed board of governors, based in Washington.
In a statement, a spokesman for the Fed’s board of governors said it is committed to fostering diversity of all types within its leadership and that its track record has improved.
“To bring a variety of perspectives to Federal Reserve Bank and Branch boards, we have focused considerable attention in recent years on recruiting directors with diverse backgrounds and experience,” the statement said. “By law, we consider the interests of agriculture, commerce, industry, services, labor, and consumers. We also are aiming to increase ethnic and gender diversity.”
The criticism comes in the midst of a controversial debate within the central bank. The Fed hiked interest rates in December for the first time since the Great Recession, citing the strength in the U.S. recovery. It had anticipated increasing rates four more times this year but has since downgraded that expectation amid weakness in the global economy. Investors around the world are now carefully watching to see what the Fed will do when it meets again in June.
The Center for Popular Democracy and its activist coalition, Fed Up, are pressuring the central bank not to raise its benchmark interest rate until the unemployment rate falls to 4 percent. Sanders has endorsed that target in the past, though the letter released Thursday said only that the central bank should give “due consideration” to the unevenness of the recovery.
“It is unacceptable that discussion of the job market for these populations would be an afterthought, or worse, ignored entirely, and we are concerned that the lack of balanced representation may be a significant cause of this oversight,” Democratic lawmakers said in their letter to Yellen.
Democrats have generally supported the central bank’s aggressive stimulus efforts following the 2008 financial crisis, but the prospect of higher interest rates is prompting some to question the Fed’s stance. In congressional testimony earlier this year, Yellen said there are limits to the central bank’s ability to help disadvantaged communities.
"It’s important to recognize that our powers, which involve setting interest rates, affecting financial conditions, are not targeted and can't be targeted at the experience of particular groups,” she said. “I think it always has been true and continues to be true that when the labor market improves, the experience of all groups does improve."
The Fed established an internal diversity office in 2011 as part of sweeping congressional reforms of the country’s financial system. The latest annual report for the Washington-based board of governors found minorities made up just 18 percent of top management in 2015, down from 21 percent the previous year. However, more than half of mid-level managers and administrative and support workers are minorities.
The report outlines several steps the Fed is taking to improve the recruitment and promotion of minority employees, such as a teaching and mentoring partnership with Howard University, a prestigious historically black college in the District.