Elizabeth Warren And Congressional Democrats Call Out Lack Of Diversity At The Federal Reserve

Top central bank officials are disproportionately white, male and from the finance or business sectors.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) led a group of Senate and House colleagues in calling for greater diversity at the Federal Reserve.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) led a group of Senate and House colleagues in calling for greater diversity at the Federal Reserve.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A majority of House Democrats and eleven Democratic senators sent a letter to Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen on Thursday, urging the Fed to improve the diversity of its top officials and increase the representation of consumer and labor groups in its ranks.

The letter, spearheaded by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in the Senate and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) in the House, argues that a lack of diversity of all kinds at the Federal Reserve undermines the central bank's ability to represent the public.

The Fed’s control over monetary policy, the letter notes, gives it far-reaching influence over the economy. When the central bank decides to raise interest rates, it increases borrowing costs, putting downward pressure on job creation in order to keep inflation in check.

A Fed with fewer black and female decision-makers might be less attuned to the ways in which modest changes in the job market disproportionately affect African-Americans and women, both of whom suffer from employment discrimination.

“When the voices of women, African-Americans, Latinos, and representatives of consumers and labor are excluded from key discussions, their interests are too often neglected,” the letter states.

Boasting the signatures of 116 House Democrats, including all of the Democrats in the Congressional Black Caucus, the letter does not lack for evidence with which to critique the central bank.

Eighty-three percent of the board members of the regional Federal Reserve banks are white, and almost three-quarters of them are men, according to a Center for Popular Democracy study cited in the letter.

Just 11 percent of those board members represent consumer and community groups or labor organizations, the study states, while 39 percent come from the financial industry and 47 percent from other major business sectors.

“When the voices of women, African-Americans, Latinos, and representatives of consumers and labor are excluded from key discussions, their interests are too often neglected.”

- Warren-Conyers letter to Janet Yellen

The congressional Democrats praised Yellen in the letter for prioritizing full employment since she has taken the helm in 2014. Yellen has presided over just one increase in the Fed’s benchmark rate in December, when the Fed raised it to a range of 0.25 to 0.5 percent from the near-zero level, where it had been since the 2008 financial crisis.

The letter also credits Yellen for promising to “consider” African-American candidates for open regional Fed president positions during her congressional testimony in February, and expressing "concern" that there has never been a black president of a regional Federal Reserve bank.

But just days after Yellen’s testimony, the Democrats note, the Fed announced it had approved the re-appointment of 10 regional Fed presidents, all of whom are white and eight of whom are men.

“Despite the importance of this decision, there appears to have been no public consultation, and limited transparency regarding the metrics and criteria used to evaluate the presidents’ performance, or in the decision to reappoint them,” the letter alleges.

Warren and Conyers’ letter is part of a broader push by progressive members of Congress, along with national activist groups and like-minded economists, to make Federal Reserve monetary policy a key component of the progressive agenda. They argue that the outsize influence of inflation-wary financial professionals on the central bank, plus sustained pressure from ideological conservatives in Congress, mean it's time for liberals to be more vocal about their views.

The Fed Up coalition, an alliance of progressive groups headed by the Center for Popular Democracy, has led these efforts, which include a reform plan released in April that would transform the Fed into a wholly public entity, among other changes. (The 12 regional Fed banks are currently owned by private financial institutions.)

Fed Up said activists affiliated with its member groups made calls to members of Congress to encourage them to sign the letter.

Democratic hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was among the lawmakers who did so. Sanders also praised Fed Up’s April reform plan and released detailed proposals of his own for the central bank in December.

Fellow Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign implied that Clinton agreed with the letter's key demands.

“Secretary Clinton believes that the Fed needs to be more representative of America as a whole as well as that commonsense reforms -- like getting bankers off the boards of regional Federal Reserve banks -- are long overdue,” Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the Clinton campaign, said in a statement. “Secretary Clinton will also defend the Fed's so-called dual mandate -- the legal requirement that it focus on full employment as well as inflation -- and will appoint Fed governors who share this commitment and who will carry out unwavering oversight of the financial industry."

The remarks appear to be the most explicit comments to date by either Clinton or her campaign on the Democratic presidential front-runner’s vision for the Fed and the types of Fed officials she would appoint as president.

Presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump’s presidential campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter.

Trump told CNBC last week that he would likely replace Yellen, who is the first female chair of the central bank, once her term ends in 2018. In the same interview, he said he supports low interest rates, a policy Yellen promoted that might be undone by a more conservative Fed chair.

Trump's latest comments suggest a departure from claims he made in August, when he said the low rates were feeding a financial asset bubble.

Read the full letter here.