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.

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