All Eyes on Ben

bernakelargeI’ve been Fed watching again. That’s something of both an occupational hazard and a weirdish hobby for me. Usually, Fed chairs stay off the lecture circuit until they retire and write their biographies. Ben Bernanke, however, is not your usual Fed Chair and these are not usual times. I think you may recall that part of his observations with being in charge of monetary policy when there’s no room drop interest rates (ZIRP) has to do with communicating future Fed actions to a nervous public. This continues.

Bernanke was in Kansas City over the weekend speaking to normal people and Jim Lehr of the PBS program News Hour. There were several things from this exchange worth mentioning. The first is a response to the meme circulating around the libertarian circuit that there is no accountability between the FED and any one in Washington. That is untrue for several reasons. First, because the majority of appointments (including the Fed Chair) to the FOMC are made by POTUS and approved by the Senate. Second, the Fed Chair makes biannual trips to the Hill to speak with both houses of Congress and take questions. Third, they publish their internal records as well as their research continually. It’s a matter of public record. The only thing Congress doesn’t get to see is the rationale behind monetary policy which is perfectly in keeping with the idea of independence supported overwhelmingly by evidence and theory. They have to the right to see the Fed balance sheet and items now. What they do not have is the right to ‘audit’ monetary policy. Something that would be a disaster.

“The Federal Reserve, in collaboration with the giant banks, has created the greatest financial crisis the world has ever seen,” Representative Ron Paul, Republican of Texas, said at a House hearing last week in which Mr. Bernanke testified about the state of the economy.

Republican lawmakers portray the Fed as the embodiment of heavy-handed big government, and have called for scaling back the central bank’s regulatory powers. But liberal Democrats, like Representative Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, have accused the Federal Reserve of caving in to demands by banks for huge bailouts, for failing to protect consumers against dangerous financial products and for being too secretive about its emergency rescue programs.

More than 250 lawmakers have signed a bill sponsored by Mr. Paul that would allow the Government Accountability Office to “audit” the Fed’s decisions on monetary policy — a move that Fed officials see as a direct threat to their political independence in carrying out their central mission of setting interest rates.

A lot of the complaints at the appearance came from the audience who basically aired Kucinich’s view that the Fed appeared all too willing to bail out the reckless big guys while letting the little guys go belly under. Bernanke did not shy away from the questions at all.

When a small-business owner asked Mr. Bernanke why the Fed helped rescue big banks while “short-changing” small companies, Mr. Bernanke answered that he had decided to “hold my nose” because he was afraid the entire financial system would collapse.

“I’m as disgusted by it as you are,” he told the audience of 190 people. “Nothing made me more angry than having to intervene, particularly in a few cases where companies took wild bets.”

He used a most interesting metaphor when explaining why he had to hold his nose and bail out the gamblers. He basically said, if an elephant falls it crushes the grass beneath it. Wow, a zen moment from a Fed Chair. Who’d have thought that was possible? He also said that the main reason he did it was because he didn’t not want to be the Fed Chair at the time of the second Great Depression. I’d say that was succinct enough.

So this brings me to another interesting thing I read yesterday, also at NYT, by Nouriel Roubini. Bernanke is up for reappointment as chair and many folks, including me, are afraid that Obama may take the opportunity to slide Lawrence Summers into the position. Roubini makes the case for re-appointing Bernanke better than just about any one. I say this because Roubini saw much of the current problems coming and his been very vocal about what he feels the Fed did right and wrong.

LAST week Ben Bernanke appeared before Congress, setting off a discussion over whether the president should reappoint him as chairman of the Federal Reserve when his term ends next January. Mr. Bernanke deserves to be reappointed. Both the conventional and unconventional decisions made by this scholar of the Great Depression prevented the Great Recession of 2008-2009 from turning into the Great Depression 2.0.

Mr. Bernanke understands that in the Great Depression, the collapse of the money supply and the lack of monetary stimulus during contractions worsened the country’s economic free fall. This lesson has paid off. Mr. Bernanke’s decision to keep interest rates low and encourage lending has, for now, averted the L-shaped near depression that seemed highly likely after the financial collapse last fall.

To be sure, an endorsement of Mr. Bernanke’s reappointment comes with many caveats. Mr. Bernanke, a Fed governor in the early part of this decade, supported flawed policies when Alan Greenspan pushed the federal funds rate (the policy rate set by the Fed as its main tool of monetary policy) too low for too long and failed to monitor mortgage lending properly, thus creating the housing and credit and mortgage bubbles.

He and the Fed made three major mistakes when the subprime mortgage crisis began. First, he kept arguing that the housing recession would bottom out soon (it has not bottomed out even three years later). Second, he argued that the subprime problem was a contained problem when in reality it was a symptom of the biggest leverage and credit bubble in American history. Third, he argued that the collapse in the housing market would not lead to a recession, even though about one-third of jobs created in the latest economic recovery were directly or indirectly related to housing. Mr. Bernanke’s analysis was mistaken in several other important ways. He argued that monetary policy should not be used to control asset bubbles. He attributed the large United States current account deficits to a savings glut in China and emerging markets, understating the role that excessive fiscal deficits and debt accumulation by American households and the financial system played.

Still, when a liquidity and credit crunch emerged in the summer of 2007, Mr. Bernanke engineered a U-turn in Fed policy that prevented the crisis from turning into a near depression. He did this largely with actions and programs that were not in the traditional toolbox of monetary policy. The federal funds rate was effectively pushed down to zero to reduce borrowing costs and prevent the collapse of consumer demand and capital spending by business. New programs encouraged skittish institutions to resume lending. For the first time since the Great Depression, the Fed’s role as lender of last resort was extended to investment banks.

I hope you take the time to read up on some of these things, not just to turn into a Fed nerd like me, but to understand what could’ve happened and what still may come. I do not want to see Larry Summers in charge of this important institution. I do not want Ron Paul putting his political tentacles into monetary policy. The more you read about this, the more you will understand why.

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