Stanley Fischer Will Please Centrists, But He's the Wrong Choice for the Fed

Dec 12, 2013Jeff Madrick

Fischer's track record shows that he'll base his decisions on market ideology instead of empirical evidence about the economy. 

Oh, no, not Stan Fischer. Just when you thought President Obama had come to terms with Janet Yellen, his nominee for the Federal Reserve chairmanship, he sends a counter-message. Yellen, almost sure to be approved by Congress, will be not only the first woman to serve as Fed chair, but the first head of the Fed in a long time who is as concerned with unemployment as she is with inflation. Now the press reports that Obama will appoint Fischer as vice chairman. Wall Street will be soothed. Fischer is a centrist (I’d actually call him center-right) economist, a fully doctrinaire mainstreamer, who is in Obama’s mind probably the next best thing to Larry Summers.

According to press accounts, Summers was Obama’s frontrunner for Fed chair, a man Wall Street would perceive as tough enough to fight inflation, Wall Street’s main bugaboo. The backlash against Summers was too great to be withstood, so Yellen was nominated instead. But Fischer is surely not the person we need as her number two. His resume suggests that in his bones he is an austerian. Although he cut rates sharply during the crisis as head of the Israeli central bank, this is not proof he can manage an economy that is struggling to recover. 

Here is one good reason for concern: one of the comical claims in the admiring and ill-informed press accounts announcing Fischer’s likely nomination is that he was “on the front line” of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, as the Financial Times put it. He sure was. All that financial expertise the press raves about, citing bankers as their sources, and Fischer had no clue that the Asian economies were teetering on the brink in 1996, when he wrote this in a Brookings piece: “none of the East Asian countries has pursued an excessively easy macroeconomic policy, none has tolerated even double-digit inflation, and most have small governments and small budget deficits. So the risk of a prolonged slowdown caused by a need for major macro-economic adjustments is small.”

This is reminiscent of Milton Friedman’s telling Charlie Rose in 2005 that people should stop worrying about the U.S. economy because it was very stable. In 1997, Asia crashed, led by Thailand, which had a property bubble fueled by foreign capital flows. Its “miracle” had been temporary, not driven by good macroeconomic policies based on IMF and World Bank advice, but mostly by exports due to pegging its currency to a dollar adjusted downward by the Plaza Accord. Thailand’s manufacturing exports boomed as Japan, for example, moved production to the cheap currency country.

But Fischer was a pure Washington consensus man, imposing balanced budgets, privatization, and market liberalization everywhere and anywhere he could. Most telling, as number two at the International Monetary Fund in the 1990s, he insisted the developing nations eliminate controls on capital flows. Was this based on any empirical evidence? As far as I know, there was none. It was based on market ideology. 

But worse was to come. To right the ship, the IMF told these nations in the midst of crisis to raise interest rates to keep their currencies from falling. Plummeting currencies encouraged capital flight that brought the countries down. The IMF also demanded budget cuts, assuring very deep recessions and a lot of suffering across Asia. Unemployment and bankruptcies soared.

But you don’t cut budgets in recessions; you stimulate. The IMF imposed austerity and pain on these countries, just as Germany is doing in the eurozone today—and as the U.S. is doing to a lesser extent with sequestration. To heck with Keynes, say the policymakers.

Fischer was a leader in making these enormous policy errors. Should capital flow freely around the world? Yes. But only when nations are ready. The U.S. and Europe waited to end their capital controls. Try gradualism.

What’s sad about this is that Obama may set up another obstacle for Janet Yellen to deal with—another male, no less. The best it says about Obama is that he doesn’t know much about Fischer. The former MIT professor is admired in centrist circles in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But more likely, Obama also wants to placate the inflation and deficit hawks. In truth, he’s leaned that way his entire administration. He’s just a centrist at heart—and maybe somewhat right of that. 

Jeff Madrick is a Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow and Director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative.

 

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