Sunday, November 13, 2005

Visitation Rights

I've written in the past about Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan and his current propensity to visit the White House far more often than either he has or his predecessors have during previous administrations. In Barron's this weekend (link here, with a HT to Barry Ritholtz here) Alan Abelson provides an important and distressing update:
AS A FOOTNOTE, we hark back to May 24 of last year, when we penned a blurb describing some neat research done by Kenneth Thomas, who has done time in academia as a professor and is currently a lecturer in finance at the Wharton School at the U. of Penn. Through dogged persistence and crafty sleuthing, he discovered that in the three years through 2003, Mr. Greenspan had visited the White House 67% more often than he had graced it during the '96-'98 stretch of Mr. Clinton's tenancy.

As we remarked at the time, it was always possible that the markedly fewer visits might have reflected the fact that Mr. Clinton was engaged in other pursuits in the Oval Office during that particular period. But Dr. Thomas felt that Mr. Greenspan's habitual journeys to the White House was evidence of his being too tight with Mr. Bush, at the very least lending the appearance that the supposedly independent Fed was being excessively influenced by the president.

Dr. Thomas reported to us recently that Mr. Greenspan's visits to the First Residence began to drop off noticeably from 26 in the first half of last year to 20 in the second half and 19 in the first half of this year. Pure coincidence, we're sure, that the chumminess between Mr. G and Mr. B started to chill when the Fed began its serial hikes in interest rates.

Strangely, too, after Dr. Thomas went public with his findings in '04, he ran into what he calls big problems trying to extract further such info from the Fed via Freedom of Information Act requests. Even though he had been getting detailed logs of White House visitors for five years without trouble, the Fed suddenly refused to reveal the names of the visitors. Seemingly, from a policy leaning toward transparency, Greenspan & Co. quietly switched to one favoring opacity.

"I can only hope," Dr. Thomas says, "that Ben Bernanke is a little more open to disclosure" and less prone to visit the White House. We hope so, too, but feel constrained to advise him not to get his expectations up. Disclosure is decidedly not the fashion in Washington these days.
These are not wonkish, petty details. The Federal Reserve was created specifically to keep the levers of money creation safe from the whims of elected public officials, and we've learned painful lessons in the past about what happens when that separation fails. For one example, listen to this private conversation between a President and a Fed chief that occurred shortly before that President was re-elected (thanks partly to the actions of that Fed chief) and the U.S. economy fell off a cliff.

Why would either the Federal Reserve or the White House or both want to conceal basic, previously FOIA-accessible details about their relationship?

64 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's been pretty obvious that the Fed hasn't been independent for at least 3 years.
There is NO independent branch of the Federal government including the Supreme Court.
They don't call Bush, Inc. the "Regime" for nothing.

11/13/2005 7:26 PM  
Blogger BullandBearWise said...

Has it gone unnoticed that we're at war? Marriner Eccles was at the White House visiting with Roosevelt all the time.

11/13/2005 11:12 PM  
Blogger stickler said...

Has it gone unnoticed that we're at war? Marriner Eccles was at the White House visiting with Roosevelt all the time.

We're at war? I don't recall the declaration by Congress. I don't recall the Liberty Loans or tax hikes. I don't recall a draft being announced. Has there been a surrender on the deck of a battleship that escaped my notice?

Strange sort of "war" we have here.

11/13/2005 11:25 PM  
Anonymous nadezhda said...

Another possible explanation is that Clinton actually had an economic policy run by adults at Treasury. Rubin and Greenspan had a relationship. The hollowing-out at Treasury over the past five years has been awesome, leaving most of the economy on automatic pilot, no one at the White House taking Treasury seriously, and Greenspan the only guy on the job.

11/13/2005 11:27 PM  
Blogger BullandBearWise said...

Stickler, have you forgotten what happened on 9/11/2001? Regardless of the political decisions made since then, as far as the Federal Reserve's conduct of U.S. monetary policy is concerned, we've been on a war footing. Just take a look at the spike on this chart to get an idea of the impact 9/11 was to our nation.

11/14/2005 12:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

bullandbearwise,

I think the problem is that we're committed to an open-ended war. This has now lasted longer than our involvement in WWII. We've got at least 2 more years with Iraq, and there's been virtually no obvious progress on the 'war on terror'. Bin Laden is still out there, Al Qaeda appears no less capable now than 4 years ago, and potentially more capable because they have an arena in which they can now openly act. Alas, the war on terror has slotted in nicely with the war on drugs, poverty, childhood obesity, and the menagerie of other things that administrations have felt the need to elevate to war status as a symbol of how serious they are to fix them. Oddly, our soft wars never seem to get anywhere.

Since we now seem to be on a perpetual war-on-terror footing, you can no longer declare that it is atypical and warrants distinct behavior. Clearly the vast majority of the american public acts no differently in their day-to-day lives now than they did pre-911, so why should the Fed?

WWII was different because it was. Sacrifices were being made everywhere by everyone and the US economy needed to balance on its nose for 4 years for it to come off. Since the WH domestic agenda hasn't skipped a beat since 9/11, I'm not sure why the Fed, other than for a brief period immediately after 9/11 when the economy truly was at risk, should be doing anything out of the ordinary. Otherwise, it just makes the whole war thing look like a giant excuse to screw with us.

11/14/2005 3:13 AM  
Blogger 277fia said...

I'm only an accountant and don't pretend to fully understand monetary policy. To me, it seems that when Clinton was president, Greenspan was for a balanced budget. After Bush was elected, he changed his tune.

I think that Greenspan wanted Clinton to save all of the money from the budget surplus so the Republicans could spend it on themselves. Which is just what they have done and then some.

Alan Greenspan and Osama bin Laden sure have been good for Republicans. For me, not so good.

11/14/2005 3:21 AM  
Anonymous Lord said...

Influence goes both ways. Greenspan was in position to influence the administration much more under Bush.

11/14/2005 11:45 AM  
Blogger BullandBearWise said...

Clearly the vast majority of the american public acts no differently in their day-to-day lives now than they did pre-911, so why should the Fed?

The reason the American public acts no differently now than pre-9/11 is because the Fed has been flooding the economy with liquidity to ensure Americans will maintain their robust level of consumption.

If the issue is whether consumption is a virtue when compared against a "perpetual" war that becomes the purview of an entirely different discussion. But within the confines of consumption is "good" regardless of the consequences of a permanent war, the Fed is doing exactly what it needs to do.

11/14/2005 12:51 PM  
Anonymous KevinNYC said...

Greenspan seriously damaged his reputation and his legacy when he claimed that running a surplus was dangerous and supported Bush's "temporary" tax cuts in 2001. Then in 2002 when it was obvious that there would be NO surplus, that spending was going up, that we were in one war and angling for a second, bigger war, not only did Greenspan again not speak up, when Bush wanted even more tax cuts, Greenspan starts saying we need to make the tax cuts permaenent.

http://www.slate.com/id/2074429/

In the Ron Suskind book on Paul O'Neill he makes clear that even George Bush questioned the need for the 2002 tax cut for the top end. Rove turned him around on that one.

11/14/2005 3:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe Greenspan thought he was getting something more from Bush a Republican, than he was from Clinton a Democrat, so he visited more than would seem necessary. Then he wised up and realized it was a waste of time so stopped going as much.

11/14/2005 4:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The reason the American public acts no differently now than pre-9/11 is because the Fed has been flooding the economy with liquidity to ensure Americans will maintain their robust level of consumption.

Except that the 9/11 trauma and the general fear of a domestic terrorist attack is no longer providing friction against consumer spending. Since late 2002 it's been domestic issues that could have been ameliorated somewhat by the resources committed to Iraq, and more recently by the declining confidence in the nations leadership. The economy isn't in bad shape yet it's difficult to find anyone what shares that view. So by this stage the continuing intervention by the Fed has less to do with 9/11 and Iraq and more to do with propping up the public's perception of the national direction.

If the issue is whether consumption is a virtue when compared against a "perpetual" war that becomes the purview of an entirely different discussion. But within the confines of consumption is "good" regardless of the consequences of a permanent war, the Fed is doing exactly what it needs to do.

But should the Fed be playing the role of masking preventable problems? WWII was arguably not preventable - one way or another the economic impact of that war was going to be felt in the US whether we entered or not, so the Fed needed to intervene. But should the Fed intervene and prop up consumption due to failures of the administration or a bad policy initiative? Shouldn't we simply solve those problems instead? Isn't that why the Fed intervention with Nixon is so unpalatable compared to FDR?

11/15/2005 12:28 AM  
Blogger BullandBearWise said...

So by this stage the continuing intervention by the Fed has less to do with 9/11 and Iraq and more to do with propping up the public's perception of the national direction.

If propping is needed, it's the Fed's job to do it. Are you asking them to act against economic growth?

But should the Fed be playing the role of masking preventable problems?

With total credit market debt over 400% of GDP, the Fed is a bit of a Dutch boy at this stage. They have no other choice but to hold this thing up by whatever means necessary.

11/15/2005 3:50 PM  
Anonymous grass root said...

This reminds me of the time our business was tanking and we took a trip down Denial with seventeen credit cards. Shall I tell you how it ends?

I don't have as much of a grasp of national economics as some of the other bloggers but the future looks a bit obvious to me. Will the new trillionaire class somehow escape the realities of the next recession or will they simply throw dimes out the window as they drive by?
We're back at the start of the 20th century all over again.

11/15/2005 10:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

With total credit market debt over 400% of GDP, the Fed is a bit of a Dutch boy at this stage. They have no other choice but to hold this thing up by whatever means necessary.

Fair enough, so why the appearance that the Fed is colluding with those who are busy punching holes in the dike?

If the Fed is having to prop up the actions of the administration, then the Fed should be out there testifying to Congress about the cause - not smoothing it over.

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A Day at the Spa : Show your appreciation for the hard work that takes.

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Adore your Mate : Appreciate and love them for the person they are.

Make Eye Contact : Think back to the first time you saw your now mate.

Respect Privacy : When two people come together in a relationship, each person has their own set of history.

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