WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will nominate Federal Reserve vice chair Janet Yellen to succeed Ben Bernanke as chairman of the nation’s central bank, the White House said Tuesday. Yellen would be the first woman to head the powerful Fed, taking over at a pivotal time for the economy and the banking industry.
Both Yellen and Bernanke are scheduled to appear with Obama at the White House on Wednesday for a formal announcement.
Bernanke’s term ends in January, completing a remarkable eight-year tenure in which he helped pull the U.S. economy out of the worst financial crisis and recession since the 1930s.
Under Bernanke’s leadership, the Fed created extraordinary programs after the financial crisis erupted in 2008. It lent money to banks after credit markets froze, cut its key short-term interest rate to near zero and bought trillions in bonds to lower long-term borrowing rates.
Those programs are credited with helping save the U.S. banking system.
Yellen emerged as the leading candidate after Lawrence Summers, a former Treasury secretary whom Obama was thought to favor, withdrew from consideration last month in the face of rising opposition.
Yellen, 67, would likely continue steering Fed policy in the same direction as Bernanke. A close ally of the chairman, she has been a key architect of the Fed’s efforts under Bernanke to keep interest rates near record lows to support the economy.
As vice chair since 2010, Yellen has helped manage both the Fed’s traditional tool of short-term rates and the unconventional programs it launched to help sustain the economy after the financial crisis erupted in 2008. These include the Fed’s monthly bond purchases and its guidance to investors about the likely direction of rates.
“She’s an excellent choice and I believe she’ll be confirmed by a wide margin,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.
Obama’s choice of Yellen coincides with a key turning point for the Fed. Within the next several months, the Fed is expected to start slowing the pace of its Treasury and mortgage bond purchases if the economy strengthens. The Fed’s purchases have been intended to keep loan rates low to encourage borrowing and spending.
Yet even after the Fed scales back its bond buying, its policies will remain geared toward keeping borrowing rates low to try to accelerate growth and lower unemployment. The unemployment rate is a still-high 7.3 percent. Few expect the Fed to start raising the short-term rate it controls before 2015 at the earliest.
Yellen had long been considered a logical candidate for the chairmanship in part because of her expertise as an economist, her years as a top bank regulator and her experience in helping manage the Fed’s polices. Her understanding of the financial system is widely respected: Before the crisis struck, she was among a minority of top economists who had warned correctly that subprime mortgages posed a severe threat.
On the Fed, Yellen has built a reputation as a “dove” — someone who is typically more concerned about keeping interest rates low to reduce unemployment than about raising them to avert high inflation. Her nomination could face resistance from congressional critics who argue that the Fed’s low-rate policies have raised the risk of high inflation and might be breeding dangerous bubbles in assets like stocks or real estate.
Still, Yellen has said that when the economy finally begins growing faster and rates will need to be raised to prevent high inflation, she will move in that direction.
In the weeks leading to her selection, Yellen and Summers emerged as the two top contenders and were drawn into a highly unusual public battle. Yellen and Summers themselves kept quiet. But their warring camps waged a fight that stirred up Congress, spawned opinion columns and letters from Congress and triggered commentary from notables both inside and outside the economics profession.
Yellen drew outspoken support from Senate Democrats, a third of whom signed a letter this summer urging Obama to choose her. Last month, more than 350 economists signed a letter to Obama urging him to nominate Yellen. The letter argued that Yellen understands the relationship between interest-rate policy and economic growth, possesses a “nuanced understanding” of job markets and is inclined as a policymaker to consider all points of view.
If confirmed by the Senate, Yellen would be the first Democrat chosen to lead the Fed since Paul Volcker was picked by Jimmy Carter in 1979. Bernanke, who served for eight years, and his predecessor, Alan Greenspan, who did so for 18½ years, were Republicans. She would also be the first vice chair of the Fed to ascend to the chairmanship.
— Jim Kuhnhenn, Associated Press