(Reuters) – For all the derision Republican presidential hopefuls have heaped on the Federal Reserve, a November win by lead contender Mitt Romney would likely change little at the central bank, at least in the short term.
That might seem surprising, given the unprecedented barrage of criticism levied this campaign season at Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, whose aggressive efforts to support the economy have sparked accusations that he is setting the table for future inflation.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has since dropped out of the race, called Bernanke’s policies “treasonous.” Former Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich, who is laboring on, has vowed to fire him. Another long shot, Representative Ron Paul of Texas wants to take the Fed offline, permanently.
Even Romney, by far the favorite to clinch the Republican nomination to oppose President Barack Obama in the November election, has faulted Bernanke’s easy-money policies for hurting the dollar.
“I wouldn’t keep Ben Bernanke in office,” the former Massachusetts governor said in October, a stance the campaign confirms he still holds.
But such rhetoric is likely to fade, analysts say.
“I don’t think he’ll be as critical of Bernanke once he’s the nominee,” said Greg Valliere, chief political strategist at Potomac Research. “If there was even a hint that he was leaning on the Fed, it would not be well received by the markets. And Romney has to know this.”
Economists say the Fed’s ability to do its two jobs – fighting inflation and boosting employment – rests largely on its political independence, which officials at the central bank guard jealously.
Indeed, Bernanke pushed ahead with monetary policy easing despite Republican criticism, and he reiterated in March that the Fed expects it will need to keep interest rates low through late 2014 to help the recovery.
“Our job is to do the right thing for the economy irrespective of politics,” Bernanke said in an interview with ABC news on Tuesday, part of his own campaign to increase his visibility and explain the Fed’s stance. “We’re not paying any attention to election calendars or political debates. We’re looking at the economy.”
LET THE FED BE THE FED
Historically, the Fed has not always withstood political pressure – most notably in the early 1970s under Arthur Burns, who scholars say lowered rates to help his friend President Richard Nixon win re-election.
But two decades later, President George H. W. Bush blamed Alan Greenspan for costing him the 1992 election by failing to cut rates in time, quipping, “I reappointed him and he disappointed me.”
Since then, presidents have stayed well clear of even after-the-fact Fed criticism, and Romney is likely to do the same.
“The real question would be whether a Romney administration would feel free to comment on Fed policy while sitting as president,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who directed economic and domestic policy for Republican Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.
“I would hope not. And my suspicion is, they would not,” said Holtz-Eakin, who served as a top economic adviser to Republican President George W. Bush. It was Bush who initially appointed Bernanke.
That’s not to say that Romney would not have a chance to put his stamp on the Fed if he won the White House; he would. Bernanke’s term as chairman expires in January 2014 and the president will get to choose a successor.
Asked in October who he would pick, Romney said he had made no decision, but then suggested his top two economic advisers – Glenn Hubbard, dean of Columbia University’s business school, and Harvard professor Greg Mankiw – would be good candidates.
Among other names that have surfaced as possible Bernanke successors should Obama lose the White House are Stanford economics professor John Taylor, an outspoken critic of the Fed’s aggressive easing; Harvard economics professor Martin Feldstein, who advised President Ronald Reagan; and Lawrence Lindsey, one of President George W. Bush’s economic advisers.
However, even a Romney pick is not guaranteed to deliver on Republicans’ political hopes. Bernanke, after all, is a registered Republican.
Former Fed official Bob Eisenbeis, chief monetary economist at Cumberland Advisors, says that whoever Romney favors is unlikely to steer the Fed in a sharply new direction, given the influence of dovish policymakers like Vice Chairman Janet Yellen and New York Federal Reserve Bank President William Dudley.
And indeed, by the time Bernanke’s term runs out, the economy may be on a very different footing, making a policy shift likely no matter who is leading the Fed, even if Obama wins a second term.
“Practically speaking, I would expect that by the time you get a real robust recovery, then you are in that window, when Bernanke’s term is up,” said Matt McDonald at Republican-leaning Hamilton Place Strategies.
Republicans, however, could try to make the central bank take a more hawkish line by changing its mandate.
Some Republican lawmakers want to strip the Fed of its full employment goal and leave it to focus solely on inflation.
They also want to block the range of assets the central bank can buy. Many conservatives feel the Fed overstepped the bounds between monetary and fiscal policy when it bought mortgage-linked debt to help the housing market.
Allan Meltzer, a Carnegie Mellon professor and Fed historian critical of Bernanke’s policies, thinks the populist anger levied against the Fed during the election season may translate to real change.
“There’s a reasonable chance that a Republican president – Romney is the most likely one – would want to see some restrictions put on what the Fed does,” he said.