Should the Fed Be Run by Economists?

Tomorrow, November 2, marks two years since the nomination of Jerome Powell to be Chairman of the Federal Reserve. Leaving aside President Trump’s subsequent expressions of regret at his choice, the nomination represented an important institutional change for the Fed: the first Chairman in 30 years lacking a Ph.D. in economics.

The anniversary of Powell’s appointment offers us an opportunity to reflect: Was this a good thing, or should the Fed always be an “econocracy,” run by economists? Does other expertise matter?

In a 1977 conference at the American Enterprise Institute, Irving Kristol observed: “Most professors of economics genuinely believe they know how to run the economy and would very much like to have the chance to prove it.”

It does seem that inside every macroeconomist is a philosopher-king trying to get out, and that being part of the Federal Reserve is the closest an economist can ever get to being a philosopher-king—or at least an assistant deputy philosopher king.

On the other hand, the will to power is hardly limited to economists. What kind of education and experience, we may wonder, helps us best moderate our natural ambitions, apply wisdom to our actions, and control, in Friedrich Hayek’s terms, the “fatal conceit” of “the pretense of knowledge”?

On the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Federal Reserve, I made a dozen predictions about the Fed’s next 100 years.[1] Among them was this:

An intriguing trend in recent decades is how economists have tended to take over the Fed, including the high office of Chairman of the Board of Governors and the presidencies of the Federal Reserve Banks. But there is no necessity in this, especially once we no longer believe that macro-economics is or can be a science.

I predict the Fed’s next 100 years will again bring a Federal Reserve chairman who is not an economist.

This prediction was fulfilled much more quickly than I thought with the appointment of Chairman Powell, and I think it is a good thing for the Fed to move away from econocracy. Whatever the illusions in the past may have been, we not only no longer believe, but we all ought to know by now that macroeconomics is not a science. Moreover, in my view, it cannot ever be one. Therefore, it is healthy to move the chairmanship of the Fed around among various professional domains.

Chairman Powell was trained as a lawyer and has significant Wall Street experience in investment banking and private equity investing. This is a completely appropriate background, as it seems to me.

Speaking of lawyers, the first Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board was William G. McAdoo, who was at that time the Secretary of the Treasury. Under the original Federal Reserve Act, the Treasury Secretary was automatically the chairman. McAdoo was a lawyer and a businessman, who among other things built two tunnels under the Hudson River between Manhattan and New Jersey. As Treasury Secretary during the cataclysm of the First World War, he set out to and succeeded in helping New York displace London as the world financial center.

But the real power inside the Fed in its early days was Benjamin Strong, the president (they called it “Governor” at the time) of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from 1914 to 1928. Strong was definitely one of Kristol’s “men of experience.” He went to work in banking right out of public high school—no college, let alone a graduate degree for him. He nonetheless became president of Bankers Trust Company and then took charge of the New York Fed.

If you were President of the United States, whom would you want to pick as chairman of the central bank to the dollar-based world? Here, by principal vocation, are the ones who did get picked in chronological order: Lawyer, banker, lawyer, banker, investment banker, banker, banker, corporate executive, financier, Ph.D. economist (we have reached Arthur Burns), corporate executive, economist without Ph.D. (that is, Paul Volcker), Ph.D. economist, Ph.D. economist, Ph.D. economist, financier (bringing us up to the present).

We may further consider that there are two major Federal Reserve buildings in Washington, DC. The first is the main Fed headquarters. This familiar, impressive temple to the importance of money is the Eccles Building, named for Marriner Eccles, who was chairman of the Fed from 1934 to 1948, and after that stayed on the Federal Reserve Board without being chairman until 1951. About Eccles, we read:

Although he neither attended college nor received any formal training in economics, Marriner S. Eccles became the intellectual force who led the Fed through financial crises during the Depression and World War II.

Eccles was a Salt Lake City banker who controlled two dozen banks, in addition to a number of other companies, and set up one of the first multiple bank holding companies. It is fair to say that this powerful Fed chairman bore little resemblance to an economics Ph.D.

The second main Federal Reserve building in Washington is the Martin Building. It is named for William McChesney Martin, who was chairman of the Fed from 1951 to 1970, which included serving under five U.S. presidents, and represents the record tenure in the job.

Martin’s highest academic degree was a B.A. in English from Yale, where he also studied Classics. Perhaps this prepared him to be, as Peter Conti-Brown has written, the Fed’s greatest creator of language. His most famous metaphor, of course, was “the punchbowl,” which the Fed must take away “just when the party was really warming up.”

Martin did take classes in economics in college, in which “he was astonished,” we are told, that the academic economists believed that his father, who was the president of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, and other Fed bankers were “hopelessly out of date because of their misguided warnings about excessive speculation in the stock market” of the 1920s. Of course, his father and friends turned out to be right.

Among other things, Martin served as the president of the New York Stock Exchange. He did take some graduate classes in economics, too, but through his long tenure at the Fed, he remained highly skeptical of economic models and forecasts.

History does make clear that while having professional education in economics can be a relevant qualification for leading the Federal Reserve, it certainly isn’t the only one or a necessary one.

A very instructive book on whom you might want as Federal Reserve chairman is Donald Kettle’s Leadership at the Fed. Its final chapter, “The Chairman as Political Leader,” draws these insightful conclusions:

The Fed’s policymaking is inevitably political, and no institutional (or even constitutional) fix can change that. History demonstrated the folly of thinking that monetary management can be reduced to a process of technical adjustment, for any monetary policy has political implications and creates political conflicts. The very attempt to shield such inherently political decisions behind “technical” standards and legal “independence” is itself a political strategy.… In framing monetary policy, the chairman operates as a political leader. He seeks to craft a policy for which he can build political support (and deflect attack)… [while enmeshed in] the intricate and complex balance of political forces in the Fed’s constituencies.

These points seem to me correct and to reflect reality. They must make us think of Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Fed from 1986 to 2006, who earned an economics Ph.D., but was not an academic, and repeatedly demonstrated his skills as a master politician and political leader. This took him all the way to being “The Maestro”—though even he could not sustain that exalted but unrealistic perception.

In sum, are we better off for having had at the Fed an econocracy of Ph.D.s for most of the last three decades? Forty years ago, Kristol mused: “I am not so sure the world has improved much since we began being governed by economic theories rather than by men of experience using some common sense.” As with other counter-factual speculations, we can never know what would otherwise have been.

Turning to the future, it is safe to predict that the Federal Reserve staff will continue to be full of economics Ph.D.s, whose advice and analysis any Fed chairman will want to consider.

But at the top of the Fed, will Chairman Powell be the start of a new phase, which returns to a model of financial experience and practical knowledge—like Eccles, Martin, McAdoo, and Strong? In my view, this would be a good addition to the Fed leadership mix over time. We should certainly not exclude economics Ph.D.s from the office, but they should most definitely not have an exclusive claim on this hugely powerful, globally impactful, systemically important job. The Fed should not be an econocracy.

[1] Alex Pollock, “The Federal Reserve’s Second 100 Years,” The American, 1/25/14.