Ben Bernanke is expected to step down when his second four-year term as chairman ends on January 31. A new chair is just the beginning of what could be even bigger leadership changes at the Federal Reserve — up to six officials could depart by early 2014.
Five of those, including Chairman Ben Bernanke, sit on the Fed's seven-member Board of Governors, so these depatures set the stage for a whole new cast to run the world's most influential central bank. Today's policy-making Federal Open Market Committee is made up of the seven board members, the head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and four other rotating regional Fed bank presidents. The FOMC has committed to keeping rates near zero at least until the unemployment rate falls to 6.5 percent, as long as inflation stays under control.
The last thing the Fed wants to do is surprise investors. Interest rates shot higher in June after Bernanke said the central bank wanted to start trimming its $85-billion-per-month bond purchases. Wholesale personnel changes may raise questions in the marketplace over the verbal promises the Bernanke-led Fed has made to keep interest rates low in the years ahead.
Notwithstanding the departures and arrivals, we are not expecting abrupt changes in the central bank's policy path, including its plan to end a massive bond-buying program by around mid-2014. However, it is unclear if the next generation of policymakers will conform to the promises made in the wake of the Great Recession. This uncertainty is helping push bond yields higher.
The face of the Fed could be even less familiar if Bernanke is not succeeded by Vice Chair Janet Yellen, a policy dove who appears to be in a tight race for the top job with former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers. Past public comments suggest a Summers-led Fed might be quicker to raise interest rates and less likely to use extraordinary measures such as bond buying in the future. If Yellen does not get the job, economists expect her to leave when her term as vice chair ends in October, even though her separate board term does not expire until 2024.
So what will President Obama do? The unusually heavy turnover means he has the opportunity to overhaul the central bank even more than former President George W. Bush did back in 2006 when Greenspan left and Bernanke took over. Given the improving but still precarious position of the U.S. economy, Obama should try to maintain as much continuity as possible.
He is expected to name his Fed chairman nominee this fall. His picks for governors would likely come later and the new chairman would probably have a big say on who gets appointed.