Ok, the media is a poor judge of the performance of the Chairman of the Board of Governors. It seems like only yesterday that it anointed “maestro” status to Chairman Greenspan, right before all hell broke loose and he had to admit that his whole approach to financial markets had been dangerously wrong-headed. Now Chairman Bernanke is awarded with a magazine’s choice as “man of the year”—purportedly for saving capitalism as we know it. More importantly, the Senate is trying to decide whether he deserves reappointment. Usually these votes are little more than a rubber-stamping. Yet, something seems amiss this time around as the Senate Banking Committee voted 16 to 7 for approval—with significant opposition to reappointment. To some extent this is probably a vote of no-confidence for the Administration’s approach to dealing with the financial mess created by three decades of complete mismanagement of the banking system by a succession of Fed and Treasury officials. And, in truth, it would make more sense to fire Timmy Geithner and Larry Summers—who have done far more harm to the economy than has Ben Bernanke.
Let us suppose for a moment that Bernanke had done everything exactly right. Would he deserve accolades? In truth, the job of a Fed Chairman is pretty darn simple. So far as monetary management goes, he has one tool—the overnight interest rate target that is set in meetings of the Federal Open Market Committee. The Chairman has tremendous influence at these meetings, as we know from the transcripts that are released with a 5 year lag. While tremendous significance is believed to surround changes to the Fed’s target rate, in truth the overnight rate has little influence over the economy. As conventional thinking goes, the Fed raises rates in an inflation and lowers them in a recession. When the crisis hit, the Fed should have lowered rates, and did so. By itself, this should have had no impact; and by all accounts it had no impact. Should anyone receive man of the year designation for doing something that any Fed Chairman would have done, and which everyone agrees has virtually no impact?
Better to replace the FOMC with a rule that the overnight rate will be kept at zero from now on, a directive that the NYFed would implement. That would provide a lot more stability to the financial sector—and would go some way toward J.M. Keynes’s “euthanasia of the functionless rentier class”. But that is a story for another day.
In a crisis, the other thing the Fed does is to “provide liquidity”—that is, it lends reserves to prevent bank runs. This has been widely accepted policy since the 1840s and there is no central bank anywhere in the world that would not act as a lender of last resort in the sort of situation Bernanke faced. In fact, Bernanke was a bit slow to the gate on this, and never seemed to fully understand what he was doing. While he should have lent reserves without limit, to all comers, and against any kind of collateral, he played around with a variety of limited auctions, let a major financial institution fail due to lack of access to the Fed’s lending, and demanded good collateral for far too long. If anything, the Fed’s slow learning curve contributed to the crisis. Man of the year? I think not.
Finally, the Fed is supposed to be a regulator of financial institutions—through the thick and thin of the business cycle. Let us suppose a counterfactual: what if Bernanke had been a competent regulator from the time of his appointment? In truth, he consistently and persistently opposed any regulation that might have prevented this crisis, but in that he only followed his predecessor. And most of the damage had been done, with Greenspan at the helm since 1987 and with most of the important deregulation already accomplished by 2000. Clearly Bernanke deserves a grade of D- as a regulator (Timmy proudly earned an F when he testified before Congress that in all his years at the helm of the NY Fed he had never acted as a regulator!). So, he is certainly no worse than a Rubin or a Paulson and by 2005 when he was appointed he would not have had sufficient time or influence to overcome all the damage that had already been done. But a Man of the Year might have at least sounded a warning—rather than continually claiming even through summer 2007 that all was fine and dandy.
Bernanke will win reappointment. He has probably learned a bit as a result of this crisis so he will be a better head in his second term than he was in his first. Much is made of his scholarship that focused on the Great Depression. It is indeed a great advance over the work of Milton Friedman, who claimed the Fed caused the crisis by reducing the money supply. Bernanke also blamed the Fed for the initiation of the crisis, but the prolonged depression resulted because of the failure of financial institutions—which disrupted the relation between banks and their customers. When the bank of a farmer or entrepreneur failed, they were unable to borrow to finance operations—which collapsed production and employment. This is probably why Bernanke wants to prop up Wall Street institutions at all costs, to get “credit flowing again”. What he does not understand is that Wall Street banking has evolved—these are not lenders. They are speculators that serve no useful public purpose. If Bernanke were ever to figure that out, and would start to close down these predators, then he might deserve to be called Maestro.