WASHINGTON -- President Joe Biden is closing in on a decision on who should run the Federal Reserve, and both Fed Chair Jerome Powell and Fed governor Lael Brainard, the only Democrat on the central bank’s board, were spotted at the White House on Thursday, a person familiar with the matter confirmed Friday.
The president has not made a decision but expects to soon, according to a source familiar with the process. It wasn't clear if Powell or Brainard met directly with the president.
Powell's term as chair is up in February. The Fed declined to comment.
The position of chairman is among the most influential policymaking roles in the world, particularly given the Fed's vast involvement in rescuing the U.S. economy during the covid-19 crisis.
Powell, a Republican who was appointed Fed chair by President Donald Trump, has garnered widespread praise across Washington for his leadership. And, despite the Fed's unique independence from politics, Powell's views have largely aligned with the administration's when it comes to crucial issues such as government stimulus, inflation and the still-healing job market.
However, progressive groups have also been urging Biden to elevate Brainard, the lone Democrat on the Federal Reserve board, to the top spot. She has been a key critic against the easing of rules for large banks and Wall Street over the years.
Administration officials have yet to formally announce their pick for Fed chair or a broad slate of nominees to fill as many as four positions on the Fed board. During a Tuesday news conference in Glasgow, Scotland, Biden said he had "been meeting with economic advisers on what the best choices are. We've got a lot of good choices, but I'm not going to speculate now."
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen also told CNBC this week that Powell "has certainly done a good job."
"He responded very admirably to the crisis that we saw after the pandemic, and he's established with his colleagues a new framework that is very focused on achieving full employment," Yellen said.
Policymakers, economists and the markets have been eagerly awaiting news on Biden's Fed nominations, and questions about the Fed's future leadership have loomed over the central bank.
The Fed board has also been operating without its top banking cop. There is also one vacant seat on the Fed board. In January, Biden can also install a new overall vice chair.
For months, people close to the Fed and White House have cited an ongoing list of crises and legislative pushes that delayed the White House's nomination process. But the administration appears to be nearing a decision. On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal first reported that Powell had been seen visiting the White House.
Powell routinely declines to weigh in on whether he wants to stay on as Fed chair. During a Wednesday news conference, Powell said "I'm not going to have any comment whatsoever on the renomination process at all."
Much of the anticipation stems from the fact that Biden's picks for the Fed are seen as an extension - and test - of his economic agenda. Powell's critics on the left say that he has not been forceful enough on climate change and its threat to the financial system. They also argue that under Powell's leadership, the Fed has gradually eased restrictions put on Wall Street after the Great Recession. Others simply believe Biden should tap a Democrat to lead the Fed.
In September, Elizabeth Warren became the first senator to come out against Powell getting a second term. Pointing to his views on banking regulation, Warren told Powell during a Senate Banking Committee hearing that "your record gives me grave concern, and that makes you a dangerous man to head up the Fed."
Brainard's portfolio has focused on climate change and its threat to financial stability, along with the modernization of the Community Reinvestment Act. She has also voted against banking deregulation and become a champion of tight oversight of Wall Street. Last year, Powell brought Brainard into the Fed's close inner circle - a group traditionally confined to the Fed chair, vice chair and New York Fed president - that shapes the monetary policy agenda. (Brainard had also been a top contender for Biden's Treasury Secretary.)
One person familiar with the administration's thinking said that Brainard could be elevated to be the Fed's top banking cop, in a move that would also assuage progressives concerned about Powell's regulatory record. Powell himself has said he would defer to whomever is in that role to steer the Fed's supervisory and regulatory agenda, as he has under Republicans and Democrats alike.
The Fed is independent from the White House and stakes its reputation on a separation from politics. Yet on monetary policy, Powell and the Biden administration have often been aligned, especially when it comes to the economic response emerging from the depths of the covid crisis.
Powell consistently urged Congress not to pull back on stimulus too soon, emphasizing that elected lawmakers could target some of the most vulnerable pockets of the economy in ways the Fed could not. Earlier in the year, Powell also waved off concerns that a massive stimulus package would over-torque the economy and spur inflation, instead sending the message that the job market had a long way to heal before the Fed would intervene to cool the economy down.
More recently though, inflation has climbed to 13-year highs, with price increases sticking around longer than policymakers at the Fed or White House anticipated. Still, Powell and White House officials have returned to the same message - that inflation won't be permanent, but prices will remain high until global supply chains have time to clear their backlogs, likely stretching into 2022.
Meanwhile, inflation has become a political flashpoint in Washington and a strain on the pocketbooks for households nationwide. Republicans have criticized Powell and the Fed for not doing more to combat inflation, saying the Fed risks being behind the curve once it decides to step in and raise rates.
For now, the Fed is starting to wind back its pandemic-era stimulus. At the conclusion of its policy meeting this week, the Fed said it would start reducing its vast bond-buying program, with the expectation that its asset purchases would be fully wound down by the middle of next year. That could possibly position Fed to raise rates later in 2022.