Why It's a Big Deal Hillary Clinton Plans to Shake Up the Fed

Clinton has a chance to achieve radical, lasting financial reform

Hillary Clinton has vowed to help diversify the Federal Reserve System if elected president. Credit: Jessica Kourkounis/Getty

Hillary Clinton is taking on the United States Federal Reserve System, but in a wonky, bottom's-up way that shows her understanding of a complex and widely misunderstood organization. This is not "End the Fed" or even "audit the Fed" — she wants to rebuild it from its fundamentals at the regional level.

To paraphrase Mitt Romney, the Federal Reserve is people, my friend. Hillary Clinton's recent proposal to change the roster of Fed officials who ultimately make monetary policy and regulatory decisions might be the most effective Fed-reform idea since the financial crisis. Generally, the public pays attention to little more than the face of the organization — the Fed's chairperson, currently Janet Yellen — who announces and explains the Fed's decisions. But beneath Yellen functions an intricate and influential bureaucracy that's dominated by interests from the financial sector, the vast majority of them white men, and may well be blind to the reality of a vast majority of Americans.

The Federal Reserve was set up in 1917, in the wake of a financial crisis, as a private national bank that could serve as lender of last resort to other banks. If a bank needed money to make good on deposits, it could go to the Fed for a short-term loan. It was, since its inception, a bankers' institution, run for banks, by banks. But its role has clearly evolved as credit markets have developed and as the Fed's mandate was changed to pursue price stability (low inflation) and full employment at the same time, while helping to regulate the sector for which it also serves as lender.

As the Fed's mission has expanded, its governance has not. The Fed is run by a seven-member board in Washington, D.C., and a dozen regional bank presidents based in financial centers throughout the country (New York, St. Louis, Kansas City and Cleveland, among others). While the crew in D.C. is selected by the president and vetted by Congress, the regional bank presidents are chosen by the financial industry and tend to be either bankers or career Fed employees. Of the 12 bank presidents, two are women and only one is not white.

New York's regional president is Willian C. Dudley, previously a Goldman Sachs managing director. Robert S. Kaplan of Dallas was a former vice chairman at Goldman. Neel Kashkari, a known financial reformer, is nonetheless a former employee of PIMCO, one of the world's largest asset managers and a subsidiary of German financial behemoth Allianz. Dennis P. Lockhart, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta is a former Citigroup executive. 

Clinton's proposal would remove bankers from the regional boards of directors. Those boards choose the regional presidents and generate most of the information and perspective that the Federal Reserve governors use to set monetary policy. Clinton clearly understands how the Fed functions. Donald Trump has said he would not reappoint Janet Yellen as chair. Fine. But appointing the Fed chair is merely the most high-profile action a president can take in this regard. It doesn't change the system, and the Fed is known as the Federal Reserve System for a reason.

This is Clinton at her best – she knows how the government works. The region Federal Reserve boards do not get a lot of press. Most people do not know that they are staffed with chief executives from Morgan Stanley, Comerica, KeyCorp and private-equity firms like Silver Lake, and if they do know it, they do not understand its importance.

The Fed is generally a topic of political bluster. "I appointed him and he disappointed me," complained George H.W. Bush about Alan Greenspan, when the Fed chair refused to cut interest rates in the face of a recession that probably cost Bush his re-election in 1992. Before that, Ronald Reagan had to endure Chairman Paul Volcker raising interest rates so high in an effort to combat inflation that out-of-work construction workers were mailing bricks and wooden beams to the Fed in protest.

The idea that the Fed often acts contrary to the interests of working people is not new, but aside from requiring the Fed to pursue full employment in addition to price stability in 1977, presidents who are unhappy with the Fed have done little more than complain. Even after Greenspan disappointed Bush, Bill Clinton reappointed him to the post. When Greenspan retired, Ben Bernanke, an intellectual heir, took the helm. When he retired, Yellen, also an intellectual heir, took over. The power to appoint the Fed chair and governors is not, clearly, the power to change things.

Clinton is digging deeper. Changing the roster of the regional boards will hopefully help more accurate economic information trickle up to the chairperson and the federal governors. Perhaps, even, a labor representative or somebody with closer ties to the common American experience could become a regional bank president.

In her quiet way, tinkering with the inner workings of a near-century old quasi-government institution that is arcane to most, Clinton has a chance to achieve radical, lasting financial reform.