Former Bank of Israel Governor Carves Out Role at Fed

Stanley Fischer tapped to head financial stability panel at U.S. central bank, expected to be powerful voice.

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Stanley Fischer, vice chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, at the Jackson Hole economic symposium, in Moran, Wyoming, U.S., Aug. 22, 2014.
Stanley Fischer, vice chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, at the Jackson Hole economic symposium, in Moran, Wyoming, U.S., Aug. 22, 2014.Credit: Bloomberg

WASHINGTON - Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer has been tapped to head a new financial stability panel at the U.S. central bank, an influential perch he could use to try to broaden and enhance the Fed’s powers to ward off a future financial crisis.

The renowned economist and former head of the Bank of Israel, who took office in June as the Fed’s No. 2, has said he sees shortfalls in U.S. financial safeguards. The new post gives him an opportunity to address them.

The committee is being charged with monitoring financial stability, which includes working to block new asset-price bubbles from emerging. Its creation was announced Friday.

This comes after six years of near-zero interest rates. Low interest rates are a potential risk factor in such bubbles.

Given the committee’s high-ranking members, this could be a powerful voice within the Fed on financial stability issues, noted the Wall Street Journal on Friday.

“They’re putting the varsity team on it, but whether or not they’re going to be able to call bubbles better than anyone else is really is an open question,” Drew Matus, deputy U.S. chief economist at UBS Securities LLC in New York, told Bloomberg Businessweek yesterday.

Based on his public statements, and on interviews with current and former Fed officials and others familiar with his thinking, Fischer is expected to seek to streamline the decision-making process of the main U.S. financial regulation body. He is also expected to look to sharpen the Fed’s market intervention tools, with the shadow banking sector among the areas in his cross-hairs.

“We need always be aware that the next crisis - and there will be one - will not be identical to the last one, and that we need to be vigilant in both trying to foresee it and seeking to prevent it,” Fischer said in July.

Any tough steps he pushes to further rein in the U.S. financial sector, which has come under heightened regulatory scrutiny since the 2007-2009 financial crisis, are likely to be met with fierce industry opposition. Top Republicans in the House of Representatives, who are trying to curb the Fed’s authority, may also stand in his way.

Fischer’s first two speeches as a Fed governor, which dug into the financial stability issue, underscore the importance he places on an aggressive regulatory response when market stability is put at risk.

A central bank can cool financial markets by raising interest rates, but borrowing costs are a blunt tool that top Fed officials think should be used only as a last resort.

Instead, U.S. central bankers prefer so-called macroprudential tools, such as bank capital requirements and limits on leverage, and they have taken a number of steps in recent years to buttress the financial sector’s resiliency.

How much further Fischer would like the Fed to go is not clear, but his actions at the Bank of Israel, where he oversaw aggressive lending restrictions to curb a real estate bubble, show he is not afraid to take aggressive action at times.

“He will be able to both develop and deploy the tools that are needed” to make the financial system stronger, said Sidharth Tiwari, an IMF director who worked with Fischer in the 1990s.

In his work on the new panel, Fischer, who has said he does not currently see any U.S. asset bubbles forming, will be joined by Fed Governors Lael Brainard and Daniel Tarullo, the Fed said. Tarullo also heads a separate committee on banking regulation.

In his July speech, Fischer noted the main U.S. financial regulatory body - the Financial Stability Oversight Council - does not have power to impose policy changes on the regulatory agencies that are its members, unlike in Britain, where the Bank of England has that authority.

Reforming the fractured U.S. regulatory system put in place by Congress would be a high hurdle. But a former Fed official, who declined to be named, said it was possible Fischer could use his powers of persuasion to cajole other regulators to make changes when financial stability was at stake.

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