By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump is considering nominating Federal Reserve Governor Jerome Powell and Stanford University economist John Taylor for the central bank's top two jobs, in an apparent bid to reassure markets and appease conservatives hungry for change.
Under that scenario, either Powell or Taylor would take the reins from Fed Chair Janet Yellen when her term expires in early February, and the other would fill the vice chair position left vacant when Stanley Fischer retired this month.
"That is something that is under consideration, but he hasn't ruled out a number of options. He'll have an announcement on that soon, in the coming days," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters on Friday.
Making Powell, a soft-spoken centrist who has supported Yellen's gradual approach to raising interest rates, the next Fed chief would provide the continuity in monetary policy that investors crave.
The addition of Taylor, who has backed an overhaul of the Fed and embraced a more rigid rule-oriented monetary policy, would be a feather in the cap of conservative Republicans who feel that monetary policy has been too loose under Yellen, who was named as Fed chair by Democratic President Barack Obama and has led the central bank since February 2014.
"I think Powell might be the safer pick insofar as we know what we're getting," said Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist at J.P. Morgan Chase. "He's a guy who obviously knows the Fed culture, how the (policy-setting) committee operates, so for some of those soft skills we know he would be effective."
Powell has embraced the Yellen Fed's monetary policy, keeping the faith that a tighter job market will eventually push wages higher and end a lengthy period of worryingly low inflation.
Taylor has spent the last two decades refining and advocating wider use of a rule that lays out where interest rates ought to be, given certain conditions of inflation and the broader economy. His rule implies that rates should be higher than they are now.
Yellen, speaking at an economic conference in Washington on Friday evening, mounted a strong defense of the tools the Fed has used to fight the sharp economic downturn triggered by the financial crisis and said there was a risk of another crisis in which those "unconventional policies" may be needed again.
Yellen, who Trump has indicated could still be named to another term as Fed chair, was not asked about the Fed job and did not offer any comment on the selection process.
"SCOPE FOR DISAPPOINTMENT"
Although Taylor is highly regarded within the Fed, his rule-based rate-setting position has spurred criticism that he would handcuff U.S. monetary policy.
Taylor pushed back at a meeting at the Boston Fed on Saturday, saying he favored a flexible implementation of policy rules and did not want to tie the Fed's hands or suggest that he was motivated by a distrust of policymakers.
"I think that's completely incorrect," he said. "I trust policymakers; (rules) are an effort to make policy better."
Some analysts suggest that fears that Taylor would bring an inflexible monetary policy with him to the Fed, as some Republicans in Congress hope, are likely exaggerated.
"There is some scope for disappointment if people think putting Taylor in will just lead to mechanical-based policy," Feroli said.
Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester, speaking with reporters on Friday, seemed to agree.
"Even if you pick a rule, the rule itself would need to be modified given the structure of the economy," she said. "But I do think being systematic, looking at the kinds of information we look at systematically over time, articulating our strategy for policy and being less discretionary is a good idea."
At the same time, there are concerns that the combination of Powell and Taylor atop the world's most powerful central bank could send a confusing signal to markets.
It is unclear whether Trump, who has criticized Yellen's stewardship but also said on several occasions that he preferred rates to stay low, wants to dramatically alter the Fed's direction.
Although he appears to be tilting to Powell and Taylor, in addition to Yellen the Republican president has interviewed his top economic adviser Gary Cohn and former Fed Governor Kevin Warsh for the Fed chief position.
(Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Lindsay Dunsmuir and Howard Schneider; Writing by Ann Saphir; Editing by Paul Simao and Leslie Adler)