About Auditing the Fed

The Federal Reserve is one of those topics where otherwise normal people start getting a little weird. I think it knocks about 10 points off people’s IQ. Israel is another topic like that. In fact, to some people, it’s not a separate topic.
I mention this because there’s been a movement to support Congressman’s Ron Paul’s bill (HR 1207) which will require audits of the Federal Reserve. The bill already has enough cosponsors to pass the House easily. The Senate, however, could be a different matter.
So what could anyone have against auditing the Fed? The problem I have isn’t the audit, but it’s the bizarre paranoia of more than a few of the bill’s supporters. What exactly do they expect to find out?
There is a serious question as to what role the Federal Reserve ought to have. The issue before us is that the Fed has been taking on more and more job titles over the last year, not be design but by default. Congress’ prefer method seems to be outsourcing fiscal policy to the Fed and then blaming it for the consequences.
Letting Lehman Brothers may have been a mistake, though I’m not convinced it brought on the collapse. Nationalizing AIG was a bad move and the Fed wasn’t pleased with it. Unlike a lot of folks, I’m not so judgmental about Greenspan’s low-rate policies earlier this decade. Not that I think they were right but I’m not convinced how obvious the wrongness was at the time. Monetary policy in hindsight is an easy thing to do.
I consider these open questions but the fact is that these are decisions that the Federal Reserve has made and will have to make in the future. That’s a lot on their plate, plus they have their regulatory duties. Consider that over the past several months, the Fed’s balance sheet has more than doubled to over $2 trillion. One idea is to let the Fed issue its own bonds. The Fed wants to do that but Congress would never go for it. This brings me to my general rule about central banking, it should be as dull as possible.
Technically, the Fed is audited but HR 1207 will require a full audit which will include their open market operations. Edward Flaherty writes that there’s a good reason why the Fed’s open market operations haven’t been audited:

In 1978, the Federal Reserve’s Office of Inspector General was given authority to conduct audits, operations reviews, and investigations of Board of Governors’ programs and operations. In addition, GAO was given authority to audit the Board of Governors and the regional Federal Reserve Banks, branches, and facilities, subject to the limitation that it could not examine the Fed’s foreign exchange and open market monetary policy actions.
One of the difficulties in understanding the audit issue is in the different types of audits. Most people think of audits as financial audits. These are principally concerned with whether an institution has spent the money and maintains the funds as it has claimed in its financial statements, and whether it is complying with procedures designed to safeguard it from misappropriation of funds. This is no doubt the kind of audit most people have in mind when expressing their concern over whether the Fed gets audited.
But audits are also designed to review management efficiency and to evaluate the policy of an institution. It is the latter kind of audits that are the reason for the restrictions on GAO’s audit authority over the Fed. The concern is that more extensive audits will become policy evaluations second-guessing the Fed’s monetary policy, and not examinations of Federal Reserve financial safeguards and procedures. Under current law, policy is reviewed twice annually by the Congress.

And here.

In 1993 Wayne D. Angell, then a member of the Board of Governors, submitted testimony before a House subcommittee on the reasons for the restrictions on GAO access. He commented, By excluding these areas, the Act attempts to balance the need for public accountability of the Federal Reserve through GAO audits against the need to insulate the central bank’s monetary policy functions from short-term political pressures and to ensure that foreign central banks and governmental entities can transact business in the U.S. financial markets through the Federal Reserve on a confidential basis.
In reference to a bill that would lift the constraints placed on the GAO’s audit authority over the Federal Reserve, Angell stated, The benefits, if any, of broadening the GAO’s authority into the areas of monetary policy and transactions with foreign official entities would be small. With regard to purely financial audits, the Federal Reserve Act already requires that the Board conduct an annual financial examination of each Reserve Bank…The process of conducting financial audits is reviewed by a public accounting firm to confirm that the methods and techniques being employed are effective and that the program follows generally accepted auditing standards…Further, a private accounting firm audits the Board’s balance sheet…Finally, and more broadly, the Congress has, in effect, mandated its own review of monetary policy by requiring semiannual reports to Congress on monetary policy under the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978…In addition, there is a vast and continuously updated body of literature and expert evaluation of U.S. monetary policy. In this environment, the contribution that a GAO audit would make to the active public discussion of the conduct of monetary policy is not likely to outweigh the disadvantages of expanding GAO audit authority in this area.

Ultimately, I’m puzzled by the anger directed at the Fed. Go ahead and audit them, but you should really be angry at Congress.

Posted by on June 30th, 2009 at 11:43 am

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