Jerome Powell, the Fed Chair Nominee, Sees Continuity if Confirmed

Jerome Powell, the Fed Chair Nominee, Sees Continuity if Confirmed


Mr. Powell, 64, is a lawyer by training and an investment banker by trade, with deep roots in the financial industry and the Republican Party. Since joining the Fed, he has voted in favor of every policy decision — both monetary policy and regulatory policy — under the current Fed chairwoman, Janet L. Yellen, and her predecessor, Ben S. Bernanke.

President Trump nominated Mr. Powell in early November to succeed Ms. Yellen, whose four-year term as Fed chairwoman ends in early February. The position is subject to Senate confirmation, but after Tuesday’s hearing, that appears increasingly like a formality.

“Governor Powell has proved he is qualified to lead the Fed,” Senator Mike Crapo, the Idaho Republican who chairs the committee, declared in the opening moments of Tuesday’s hearing.

Some Democrats have indicated they might oppose the nomination. But, importantly, Mr. Powell drew little opposition from conservative Republicans who opposed both his nomination as a Fed governor in 2012 and his reappointment in 2014. Senator Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican who voted against Mr. Powell both times, said he was trying to get to yes.

Mr. Trump said he was replacing Ms. Yellen because he wanted to appoint his own chairman. Mr. Powell in his opening statement pledged to resist any political pressure.

He added that he had no reason to anticipate such pressure from the White House. “Nothing in my conversations with anyone in the administration has given me any concern on that front,” he said. His plan, he said, is to make policy decisions “with a view solely to right answers.”

The confirmation hearing was a relatively placid affair, with only a third of the seats in the hearing room occupied. Both Mr. Bernanke in 2010 and Ms. Yellen in 2014 were confirmed during periods of economic turmoil and sharp controversy about the conduct of monetary and regulatory policy. As economic growth has strengthened, public interest in those subjects has dissipated.

Mr. Powell spent much of the hearing avoiding questions about fiscal policy, including tax legislation that currently commands most of the attention on Capitol Hill.

Asked whether Congress should pursue tax cuts that would increase the federal debt, he said that such questions should be left to Congress. He said the Fed had no position on the legislation.

“Do you have a personal position?” pressed Mr. Heller.

“No, Senator, I don’t,” Mr. Powell responded.

Asked by Democrats whether he accepted the analysis of the Congressional Budget Office, which found that the legislation backed by Republicans would sharply increase the federal debt, Mr. Powell responded that he had not looked at it.

Janet L. Yellen, the current Fed chairwoman, and her predecessors have often warned that the growth of the federal debt is a problem for the economy.

Mr. Powell finally allowed that he shared concerns about borrowing too much, in the abstract.

“Without commenting on any particular bill, like all of us I am concerned about the sustainability of our fiscal path in the long run,” Mr. Powell said.

On regulation, Mr. Powell said that postcrisis changes have made the financial system stronger, but that those regulations were unnecessarily uniform.

He said he favored reduced regulation of smaller banks.

“Tailoring of regulation is one of our most fundamental principles,” he said. “We want it to decrease in intensity and stringency as we move down” to smaller banks.

He said the Fed was taking “a fresh look” at those rules.

Mr. Powell’s stance creates some distance from the Trump administration, which has described bank regulations as an ineffective impediment to growth.

It also created some friction with Democrats, who see a continuing need for stronger regulations.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, asked Mr. Powell if there were rules that should be strengthened. Mr. Powell responded that he favored stronger enforcement in some areas, but that he did not see a need for stronger rules.

“I do think we’ve had eight years now of writing new rules and honestly I can’t think of a place now where we are lacking,” he said. “I think they’re tough enough.”

Senators asked few questions about monetary policy, a tacit endorsement of the Fed’s success under Ms. Yellen. Unemployment has fallen to 4.1 percent and inflation remains below 2 percent.

Some Republicans argue the Fed should have raised interest rates more quickly.

Mr. Powell said he does not agree. “We’ve been patient in removing accommodation and I think that patience has served us well,” he told the committee.

He emphasized that it was important to drive inflation back up to the 2 percent annual pace the Fed regards as optimal. Inflation is on pace to fall short of that target for the sixth straight year.

Indeed, Mr. Powell sounded less impressed by the health of the economy than some of his colleagues. A number of Fed officials have said that the economy is back at full employment, meaning that further reductions in unemployment will tend to drive up wages and inflation.

But Mr. Powell suggested that there might still be room for growth.

“There is no indication in wages that the labor market is overheating or even hot,” he said.

Mr. Powell, who would become the first non-economist in several decades to lead the central bank, also sounded confident in his own abilities to steer policy.

“You’re about to become the most important economic policymaker in the world,” Mr. Heller asked. “How do you feel about that?”

Responded Mr. Powell, “I feel fine.”



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