The Federal Reserve has been under a sharp gaze since the twilight years of former president Donald J. Trump. Whether it was tinkering with the Dodd-Frank Act or the Volcker Rule specifics, controversies turned up more frequently than ever. If it was not for Powell’s centrist play, the partisan clash was all but inevitable. However, the fed chair managed to persuade either side to survive at the helm of the Federal Reserve. Now, as the critics are relentlessly scouring to inhibit his path to reappointment, scandals are bound to exacerbate. The recent controversy around the suspicious trades by the fed officials during the periods of ‘heightened market stress’ has spurred a debate around the reliability of the officials at the precipice: officials responsible for sketching the national economic policy. Thus, while Mr. Powell has deftly guided the US economy through the chaotic period of covid uncertainty, it appears as if the savior has a tough road ahead towards renomination: a path embellished with censure rather than approbation.
The current term of Mr. Jerome Powell ends in February 2022. While he vies for renomination as per the fed’s tradition (besides his predecessor: Ms. Janet Yellen), a group of vocal critics is determined to block his path. However, Powell’s term, despite being one of the most tumultuous incumbencies, has impressively very little to admonish. Coupled with his timely decisions throughout the covid crisis, he definitely stands an assured chance of renomination, given the President is inclined to overlook the partisan divide in favor of an inured chairman to steer the economy completely across rather than risk a shift in an already incendiary economic environment. That being the case, a barrage of ethics scandals disclosed by the New York Times has raised enough eyebrows to disrupt a smooth sail for Mr. Powell.
Recently, regional fed presidents: Mr. Eric S. Rosengren of Boston and Mr. Robert S. Kaplan of Dallas featured in reports alleging their suspicious engagement in trading securities in 2020. The timeline of the trades ties up with the early days of the pandemic when the fed had purchased more than $4 trillion worth of Treasury and Corporate bonds to bolster the economy through surfeit liquidity and near-zero yields. The disclosures further revealed that even Mr. Powell was involved in a trade on 1st October 2020 – selling between $1 million and $5 million in a broad-based stock fund through his vanguard fund.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of the core critics of Mr. Powell, immediately raised arguments around the plausibility of Insider Trading: exacting the President to launch an investigation into these trades. Both regional presidents resigned shortly after the disclosures while Powell assured an inquiry. Mr. Powell, however, was sheltered from broader criticism for apt reasons. Mainly because his transaction involved a market-based stock index fund; practically dispersed throughout the market. In simpler terms, assuming he had insider knowledge of particular stocks, it still would not have helped him profit since his transaction was diversified, that is, not limited to specific securities. Moreover, given that he had already made his speech at the Jackson Hole Symposium in August; and had already expressed his explicit ‘dovish’ intentions during the fed’s regular meeting in September, the policy was very much public weeks before his transaction. Summing up, not only was his portfolio in the most passive territory, but his trade lost him money: a contradiction to the very notion of insider trading.
Nonetheless, Mr. Powell turned the tables to solidify his spot for another term. On Thursday, the Federal Reserve further tightened the rules and guidelines apropos of investing practices of the Fed policymakers. The new framework disallows the fed officials, including the policymakers comprising the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), from owning individual stocks and bonds. Instead, the future investments would have to be restricted to diversified streams like Mutual funds. Moreover, the officials would have to divest certain assets, including individual bonds, corporate portfolios, agency securities, derivative contracts, before being appointed to the office. The officials would be required to provide a 45 days notice before buying or selling permitted securities. Additionally, they would also be required to hold their positions for at least a year: avoiding any activity during periods of economic distress. A tighter stipulation requires the 12 regional fed presidents to publicly disclose their financial transactions within 30 days rather than annually.
The action of the Federal Reserve is one of the most notable responses yet to widespread allegations. On Thursday, Mr. Powell reiterated: “These tough rules raise the bar high in order to assure the public we serve that all of our senior officials maintain a single-minded focus on the public mission of the Federal Reserve.” He further asked the fed general inspector to access the trading of certain senior officials. It is safe to aver that while the staunch fed critics are determined to hamper Powell’s path to renomination, in my opinion, there is not much of an impetus to deny him another term. While I admit that there are competent candidates for the job in the echelons of the Democrats, the job itself is not the same as before the pandemic. And while the allegations and scandals are nothing new for a prospective fed chairman, Powell’s prompt action to tighten the rules even before the launch of a federal investigation could actually prove to be a final nail in the coffin for his critics.