Markets

Lisa Abramowicz is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering the debt markets. She has written about debt markets for Bloomberg News since 2010.

Jerome Powell is not an economist, and that could be a good thing if you listen to Wall Street.

He is poised to assume the premier position for economy Ph.D.'s around the world. Powell, a former investment banker and Carlyle Group executive, with a law degree from Georgetown University and bachelor's degree from Princeton University, is widely expected to be nominated to run the Federal Reserve, the world's most important central bank.

This raises the question, how important is it that Powell lacks the economic background of every Fed chief since the 1980s and instead has the instincts of someone steeped in Wall Street markets?

For some, this is actually a positive. Steven Ricchiuto, chief U.S. economist at Mizuho Securities USA, said on Wednesday on Bloomberg Television, "I think the academic community has completely screwed up monetary policy. I think it is one of the reasons we got into the financial mess."

He added, "We need to get real business people in, real banking people, people who understand exactly how the markets work and don't solve problems like academics."

Or as Scott Minerd, chief investment officer at Guggenheim Partners, put it in a Twitter post Wednesday, "Central banks are the source of and the solution to every financial crisis."

Of course, the academics at the Fed arguably saved the U.S. from a depression akin to the one in the 1930s, or worse, with their unconventional policy response to the 2008 financial crisis. Their efforts have helped push down the unemployment rate and prevented a wholesale collapse of the financial system.

More Jobs
The U.S. unemployment rate fell as the Fed kept interest rates near zero and bought bonds
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

It's unclear exactly where Powell will land in this dynamic. He has been a diligent observer of the economists around him since he began his tenure as a Fed governor in 2012 and has undoubtedly learned quite a bit about the inflation debates and money transfers that have become essential to the institution.

He clearly takes a more benign view of large financial institutions than soon-to-be-former Fed Chair Janet Yellen, at least when it comes to regulation.

Many bankers and traders at large financial firms would agree with him on that, saying that the stricter requirements for Wall Street have stymied economic growth. Powell is expected to have a lighter touch when it comes to enforcing and making rules for these firms.

But what's less clear is whether he'll also adopt the view of many Wall Street traders and hedge-fund managers that the extended low-rate era has proved to be a tax on savers and led to profound market distortions. It's not just the absolute levels on rates; the current Fed's continuing rate increases have caused the gap between shorter and longer-term yields to shrink to the lowest since 2007.

Yield Compression
Longer-term U.S. yields remain historically low, even compared with shorter-term rates
Source: Bloomberg

This is significant for several reasons. First, a narrower yield curve implies slower growth ahead. Second, it limits the ability for leveraged firms, such as investment banks, to profit from borrowing short-term money and lending it out for longer periods of time. And third, it encourages companies and individuals to borrow more money and for much longer periods of time.

While Powell hasn't been especially public during his years at the Fed about his views on all this, it makes sense for his Wall Street background to color his thinking. Ideally, finance executives would like to see a steeper yield curve and higher long-term rates. 

Shrinking Curve
Investors are betting that the U.S. yield curve will keep narrowing as the Fed hikes rates
Source: Bloomberg

Many investors have been betting that the yield curve will continue to narrow as the Fed continues raising interest rates at a steady pace. Powell's appointment may throw a wrench in those bets if he leans more Wall Street than academic.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Lisa Abramowicz in New York at labramowicz@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net