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Who Will Lead The Federal Reserve In February?

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EDITOR'S NOTE: We are inching closer every day to February 2022 when we will either have another term of the Jerome Powell Era or have someone else leading the U.S.’s central bank, the Federal Reserve. The Wall Street Journal reports that experts expect President Biden to announce this week whether he will keep Powell on the job or elevate Fed governor Lael Brainard to the position for the next four years. WSJ notes that this may be more of a political decision than an economic one” because Mr. Powell’s candidacy has divided progressive Democrats and led to competing views inside the Biden administration.” Progressive Dems like Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) are calling for Powell’s ouster, while more moderate elements of the party, like Jon Tester (D-MT), are imploring Biden to keep Powell in place due to his “proven track record.” We should know “before Thanksgiving” which way Biden decides to go, according to the White House. 

Choice between Jerome Powell and Lael Brainard reflects desire for policy continuity.

President Biden faces one of the most important economic policy decisions of his presidency, which is expected this week, when deciding who should lead the Federal Reserve when Chairman Jerome Powell’s term expires in February.

Mr. Biden has signaled he is looking for continuity in Fed policy because he is considering whether to reappoint Mr. Powell for a second four-year term or elevate governor Lael Brainard, who has strongly backed the central bank’s interest rate policy over the past four years.

Instead, the president’s choice may turn on politics rather than economics, because Mr. Powell’s candidacy has divided progressive Democrats and led to competing views inside the Biden administration.

Mr. Biden’s senior advisers remain focused on securing Democratic support for their $1.85 trillion healthcare, education and climate-change package, which the House approved last week. The intraparty split over the Fed decision has complicated their political calculus as they seek to narrow Democrats’ differences over the spending package, according to people familiar with the matter.

One group of Democratic lawmakers, which includes Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, has called on Mr. Biden to install a new Fed chair because they want the central bank to take a tougher approach on bank regulation and to use those supervisory powers more aggressively to address climate change. They are also eager to see more diversity at the senior ranks of the U.S. government.

Other Democrats have lauded Mr. Powell’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and his focus on elevating the importance of tighter labor markets, which they say greatly benefits minorities and other potential workers that typically struggle to find jobs. These backers have said strong and unique bipartisan congressional support for Mr. Powell has insulated the central bank’s policies against more intense partisanship across Washington.

Sen. Jon Tester (D., Mont.) said on Sunday that it would be a mistake for Mr. Biden not to renominate Mr. Powell. “I think he would be confirmed by a large margin if the president appointed him,” Mr. Tester said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” arguing that Mr. Powell has a “proven track record.”

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Jerome Powell would likely face an easier path to Senate confirmation for a second term as Fed chairman.

Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg News

White House officials said Mr. Biden will announce his decision before Thanksgiving. The announcement is expected before the president leaves for his holiday trip to Nantucket, Mass., on Tuesday evening.

Mr. Biden is scheduled to deliver remarks about the economy on Tuesday at the White House.

Mr. Biden’s advisers have been divided over the Fed chair pick, with some preferring Ms. Brainard to mollify progressives and ease their discontent as Mr. Biden’s spending ambitions are narrowed by moderates’ objections. Others, including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, prefer to maintain continuity at the Fed and to avoid further politicizing central-bank policy by keeping Mr. Powell.

The political implications partly explain why Mr. Biden’s decision is being made later than his predecessors. Advisers have seen little reason to decide on the Fed chair since the decision could upset lawmakers no matter whom he picks and since Mr. Biden needs all Democrats to support his spending plans amid unified Republican opposition.

Brian Deese, the director of the White House National Economic Council, declined on Sunday to say whether Mr. Biden had made a final decision. “There are multiple positions open at the Federal Reserve, which the president will have an opportunity to nominate qualified candidates for and is looking at all of those issues,” Mr. Deese told Fox News when asked about the push by progressives to make the Fed more assertive on climate change.

In addition to the chair’s position, Mr. Biden has one vacancy to fill on the seven-seat Fed board of governors, with two more slots he can fill by January. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, last week hinted that the White House might announce one or two other Fed appointments at the same time as the decision on the chair.

Mr. Powell, 68 years old, is a Republican and former private-equity executive who was nominated in 2011 by then-President Barack Obama to join the Fed board and tapped in 2017 by then-President Donald Trump to lead the central bank.

Ms. Brainard, 59, is a Democrat and an economist who joined the Fed in 2014 after working in the Obama Treasury Department and the Clinton White House on international economic issues.

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Mr. Biden’s political fortunes might be tied to how the next Fed chair responds to a period of high inflation that is lasting longer than the central bank or the White House anticipated.

Both Mr. Powell and Ms. Brainard have argued this year that rising prices primarily reflect supply-chain bottlenecks that will abate on their own and shouldn’t require the Fed to slow down hiring and economic growth to put the brakes on inflation.

Fed officials will have to decide whether or when to raise interest rates to restrain inflation. If they move too little or too late, they risk letting inflation get worse for longer. If they move too much or too soon, they risk causing an economic downturn.

Two Fed officials last week said the central bank will discuss at its meeting in December whether to speed up plans to wind down the central bank’s asset-purchase program. The central bank will buy $105 billion in Treasurys and mortgage bonds this month, and $90 billion next month. At the current pace of runoff, the Fed would end purchases by June. Officials want to be done providing monetary stimulus with asset purchases before they consider raising rates.

Real Time Economics
The latest economic news, analysis and data curated weekdays by WSJ's Jeffrey Sparshott.

Beginning in the 1980s, presidents reappointed the sitting Fed chair, often making a political calculation that continuity in the role—particularly when the leadership was viewed as effective by Washington and Wall Street—would serve the economy best.

Then-President Trump broke that precedent in 2017, when he tapped Mr. Powell to succeed then-Chairwoman Yellen.

Mr. Biden could continue Mr. Trump’s precedent of replacing the Fed chair with a member of his own party by opting for Ms. Brainard. “This would make the Fed chair more like every cabinet position, which is presumed to turn over when the White House changes, which would change the partisan tenor of the institution,” said Tom Graff, head of fixed income and portfolio manager at Brown Advisory. “Markets would react to that.”

Political strategists say that Mr. Powell likely faces an easier path to Senate confirmation, despite objections from a handful of Democrats who regard him as insufficiently aggressive on climate change or bank regulation and from some Republicans who are opposed to the easier monetary policy he has favored this year. That is because Mr. Powell is likely to attract sufficient political support from lawmakers in both parties.

Mr. Powell was confirmed to his post in 2018 with 84 votes in favor. Of those senators, 68 are still in office, evenly split between the two party caucuses.

Ms. Brainard likely faces a narrower confirmation path because most Republicans may oppose her. She received 61 votes during her confirmation in 2014, including from four Republicans who are still in the Senate.

Any prospect of a tight Senate confirmation vote could also increase uncertainty in financial markets. “Because it’s not a slam dunk that Brainard would get confirmed, it would at least be a period of significant political wrangling, whereas Powell would sail right through,” said Mr. Graff.

The Next Fed Leader

More WSJ coverage of the selection of the next chief of the Federal Reserve, selected by the editors

—Aruna Viswanatha contributed to this article.

Write to Nick Timiraos at nick.timiraos@wsj.com and Andrew Restuccia at andrew.restuccia@wsj.com

Originally posted on wsj.com.

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