The silent tug-of-war for the Fed slot
Washington — The board room of the Federal Reserve has everything but Irish wolfhounds and minstrels with lutes. It is a place of baronial splendor: carpet thick enough to mow, a fireplace able to handle small trees, a conference table that seems to be cruising at low speed, like an aircraft carrier.
Paul Volcker, a chairman of uncommon height, presides over this inner sanctum , and next month President Reagan will appoint a new vice-chairman, replacing Frederick H. Schultz.
Who will it be? The choice will say a lot about where the administration's economic policy is headed. Everyone involved wants One of their Own Kind. Monetarists want a monetarist; liberals want a Keynesian; bankers want a banker; businessmen want a businessman. congressmen want whoever will make it easier for them to be re-elected.
''The names are all over the universe,'' says a congressional staffer who deals with the Fed. ''Who have I heard mentioned? Everybody except John Kenneth Galbraith.''
The vice-chairmanship is not an inordinately powerful job. The salary is low, by banking standards, and you have to talk about interest rates a lot. The duties are, according to one economist, ''kind of whatever the chairman doesn't want to do.''
Like all Fed governors, the vice-chairman has a vote on the Fed Open Market Committee (FOMC), which sets national monetary policy. That's why a number of groups are starting to squabble over who gets the job. The new vice-chairman's beliefs about the relationship between money supply growth, interest rates, and the inflation rate will herald the direction Mr. Reagan wants the Fed to take - and a lot of people want their interests represented in that baronial board room.
The Fed, accurately or not, is now seen as an almost mystical economic force by many. It is either a benign magician, banishing inflation by holding tight to money supply growth, or the wicked sorcerer who is sending the housing and auto industries to their doom. These attitudes may be part truth and part superstition, but when a government institution gathers such an aura of power unto itself, any change in its leadership becomes a matter of intense scrutiny.
For the record, administration officials won't say who is being considered. ''Yes, we've thought about it,'' says Council of Economic Advisers chairman Murray Weidenbaum, laughing, ''but I'm not going to tell you.''
Congressional sources who deal with the Fed, however, put three names at the top of the White House list: Anderson, Sprinkel, and Jordan.
Martin Anderson, head of the White House Office of Policy Development, taught economics at Columbia University in the early 1960s. He served President Nixon as a special assistant to Arthur Burns when Mr. Burns had Anderson's current job. Reagan's top economic adviser during the campaign, Mr. Anderson reportedly is not too happy about the managerial duties of his current job.
Beryl Sprinkel, undersecretary of the treasury for monetary affairs, has been carefully critical of the Fed. Though he has vowed support for the Fed's ''stated intent'' to reign in money growth, he has publicly suggested ways the central bank might better go about reaching its goals.
Jerry Jordan is a compatriot of Weidenbaum's on the Council of Economic Advisers. He was previously dean of the school of management at the University of New Mexico - and his status as a Westerner may be a check in his favor.
Other names mentioned on Capitol Hill include Leif Olson, chairman of the economic policy committee at Citibank; Alan Melzer, Carnegie-Mellon University economist; and Robert Weintraub, senior economist on the Joint Economic Committee of Congress. Then there are the fringe scenarios: Schultz replacing himself (not likely, he was a Carter appointee, after all); or Milton Friedman taking the job (again, not likely; Friedman has consistently avowed his distaste for any post on the Fed).
At one time, everyone in Washington who thought about such things simply assumed the administration would appoint a tight-fisted monetarist, like Sprinkel, who firmly believed that slow money growth is necessary to choke off inflation. That assumption, apparently, no longer holds.
''The rumor I hear is they're not likely to appoint a monetarist,'' says a congressional economist considered in the past for a Fed post. ''The Fed is arguing strongly for a person with business or banking experience. That's code for 'Let's not have a monetarist.' ''
Congressmen, who have been taking a lot of constituent abuse about high interest rates, have introduced ten different resolutions calling for a small business, farm, or geographically diverse presence on the board. The legislation which created the Fed calls for fair representation from around the country, yet 12 of the last 23 appointees have been Ivy League; 9 of those were from Harvard. Since 1959, only two have come from the Far West.
''There's a feeling that we've got a very homogenous board of directors,'' says an aide to Sen. Roger Jepsen (R) of Iowa, sponsor of one resolution. ''There's no question that this (new appointee) will have to come from the Southwest.''
Mr. Schultz himself has said the government has been ''unfair'' to farmers, small businessmen, the housing industry, and other interest-rate-sensitive sectors of the economy by making them carry the burden of the fight against inflation.
Others also think those who feel the pinch should have a say. ''I'd be choosing someone who has had practical experience running a financial institution in today's troubled times,'' says Dr. Robert Holland, president of the Committee for Economic Development and a former Fed governor.
Dr. Holland says a candidate such as Robert Dockson, chairman of California Federal Savings & Loan, would meet his criteria: a thrift official, trained economist, former business school dean, and a Westerner.