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07/19/2009

Auditing the Fed: Reply to Bob Murphy, by David Henderson

In his comment on my previous post about auditing the Fed, Bob Murphy stated that he shared my concerns about the audit movement because he, like me, distrusts Congress. He criticized my view, though, that the Fed is actually more transparent than run-of-the-mill federal bureaucracies, writing:

However, I think you're wrong about the level of secrecy. If Congress asks the head of the EPA to tell them where they are spending billions of dollars, can the head of EPA just say, "No, I feel that telling you that would be counterproductive to our goal of protecting the environment"? Because that's what Bernanke told Congress last December.

In the comment section, I granted that I might have overstated, but now I'm not sure. The specific information that Bernanke has refused to give Congress is which banks have gotten money from the Fed and how much. The amount that AIG receives is readily available, as is the total amount loaned out through various facilities. For the Social Security Administration to have the same amount of accountability that Bob is asking from the Fed, it would have to state who gets social security checks and how much; or ditto with government-provided student loans, government-provided mortgage guarantees, etc. Whether we favor that level of disclosure or not, the point is that they don't disclose that.

Moreover, would an audit even reveal the information Bernanke is refusing to provide? The auditors would have access to it, but would it appear in their report? I don't know.

The Treasury Department issues monthly reports on debt issued, and in which denominations. The Fed, however, reports changes in its balance sheet on a weekly basis. Are there any other federal agencies whose operations you can track anywhere near as closely?

I hasten to add that I never would sign the petition defending the Fed's independence that many of my colleagues at other universities, including my mentor, Harold Demsetz, signed. I favor the Fed's independence. But the economists' statement went much further. The most egregious line:

The democratic legitimacy of the Federal Reserve System is well established by its legal mandate and by the existing appointments process.

I think the Fed is illegitimate.


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