Powell's closeness to Wall Street could signal a difference in his approach to managing the central bank if he is confirmed by the Senate, which will host him for a nomination hearing on Tuesday. The Fed has faced criticism over the years for being too close to Wall Street, especially after the bank bailouts during the 2008 financial crisis.
Powell is widely expected to pursue a similar course to Yellen, especially in the Fed's efforts to gradually wind down the central bank's long-running stimulus effort. But Powell, a Republican, has opened the door to loosening oversight of banks where appropriate.
“We will continue to consider appropriate ways to ease regulatory burdens while preserving core reforms — strong levels of capital and liquidity, stress testing, and resolution planning — so that banks can provide the credit to families and businesses necessary to sustain a prosperous economy,” Powell plans to say in his opening statement at his Senate confirmation hearing, which the Fed released Monday night.
Both Republicans and Democrats are likely to probe Powell on how tough he plans to be on large banks as well as smaller regional and community banks. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) a fierce critic of Wall Street excess, will be one of the senators who gets to question Powell, who will take over the Fed chair job in early February if the Senate confirms him.
Trump picked Powell for America's top economic policy position out of a pool of several candidates. Powell has been a governor at the Fed since 2012 and was originally nominated by President Barack Obama.
Powell is a lawyer and former partner at the Carlyle Group, a top private equity firm. His many meetings with Wall Street in recent months suggest he is well aware of how big banks feel about regulations. JP Morgan chief executive Jamie Dimon, who has met twice with Powell this year, has said banks are “under assault” from all the regulations put in place after the financial crisis.
In interviews, former Fed officials as well as others who've interacted with Powell praised him as a man of high integrity who has been a bipartisan consensus builder in Washington, but several expressed surprise that he met so often with bankers, especially the president of Goldman Sachs. Schwartz took over for Gary Cohn, who left Goldman to become head of Trump's National Economic Council. Cohn is one of several Goldman alumni in Trump's inner circle, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
A Fed representative said all of Powell's meetings with Wall Street banks were for official duties. Powell has also met six times with Wells Fargo chief executive Tim Sloan, who is under pressure to fix his bank after a major scandal in which bank employees were opening multiple accounts in customers' names without their consent.
“Powell is a respected guy. We've had positive meetings with him, but the question is how he and [new Fed governor Randal] Quarles will stand up to constant barrage from Wall Street to weaken and take down post-financial-crisis controls,” said Marcus Stanley, policy director of Americans for Financial Reform, an advocacy group that is pushing for Dodd-Frank and other regulations on big banks to stay in place.
Stanley met one-on-one with Powell in July. Stanley said he is somewhat alarmed to see Powell meet so often with Goldman, since the bank has been pushing for the Fed to scale back the Volcker Rule, which prevents Wall Street firms from proprietary trading.
Powell is starting to come under a lot more scrutiny as he moves toward the Fed chair position, one of the most powerful posts in the global economy.
“The nature of his responsibilities will change quite a bit. He's going to be a lot more involved in the macro policy side of things,” said Robert Eisenbeis, vice chair of Cumberland Advisors and a former top staffer at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, the Fed in Washington and the FDIC. “Looking at who he was talking to in the past is not necessarily indicative of who he will talk to in the future.”
Current and former staffers say that with Yellen so unlikely to meet with bankers, Powell might have been pushed into taking more meetings with them. Powell has also been trying to get banks to find an alternative benchmark to LIBOR, the London Interbank Offered Rate that has been at the heart of some financial industry scandals. Some say Powell's deeper understanding and ties to Wall Street may be an asset to the central bank, especially if another financial crisis hits.
The bigger concern of many economists and investors is that the Fed is short-staffed. Out of seven Fed governor positions, only three will be filled when Powell moves up. On top of that, only one is a PhD economist, an unusual situation at the top ranks of the central bank.
“What concerns me the most right now is there's only one economist on the board — Lael Brainard,” Eisenbeis said. "That's going to be an awful lot of power with the staff."
While Powell has met 50 times with Wall Street bankers, he has only held similar one-on-one calls or meetings with two PhD economists at universities this year. Some former Fed staff hope he revives an old tradition at the Fed of hosting an informal economic advisory council to encourage open and rigorous debate between the Fed board and the world's top economic thinkers.
Powell plans to praise Yellen and her predecessor Ben Bernanke in his remarks to the Senate. He also intends to say that Wall Street is much safer now that it was a decade ago, largely because of the regulations put in place.
“Our financial system is without doubt far stronger and more resilient than it was a decade ago. Our banks have much higher levels of capital and liquid assets, are more aware of the risks they run, and are better able to manage those risks,” his opening statement says.