No to Bernanke

The American Economics Association is meeting in Atlanta, where Simon says it is frigid. I went to an early-January conference in Atlanta once. There was a quarter-inch of snow, the roads turned to ice, and everything closed. All flights were canceled, so I and some friends ended up taking the train to Washington, DC, which had gotten two feet of snow, and eventually to New York.

Paul Krugman’s speaking notes are here. Ben Bernanke’s are here.

Bernanke’s speech is largely a defense of the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy in the past decade, and therefore of the old Greenspan Doctrine dating back to the 1996 “irrational exuberance” speech–the idea that monetary policy is not the right tool for fighting bubbles. The Fed has gotten a lot of criticism saying that cheap money earlier this decade created the housing bubble, and I think it certainly played a role.

But I actually agree with Bernanke here:

“[T]he most important source of lower initial monthly payments, which allowed more people to enter the housing market and bid for properties, was not the general level of short-term interest rates, but the increasing use of more exotic types of mortgages and the associated decline of underwriting standards. That conclusion suggests that the best response to the housing bubble would have been regulatory, not monetary. Stronger regulation and supervision aimed at problems with underwriting practices and lenders’ risk management would have been a more effective and surgical approach to constraining the housing bubble than a general increase in interest rates.”

(Note that the purpose of stronger regulation, according to Bernanke, is to constrain the housing bubble that he denied existed at the time–not to protect consumers.)

The problem, for the Greenspan-Bernanke legacy at least, is that the Fed is also the chief regulator of the financial system, with jurisdiction over all bank holding companies and primary responsibility for consumer protection statutes applying to all financial institutions. Here Bernanke makes a partial attempt at an apology:

“The Federal Reserve and other agencies did make efforts to address poor mortgage underwriting practices. In 2005, we worked with other banking regulators to develop guidance for banks on nontraditional mortgages, notably interest-only and option-ARM products. In March 2007, we issued interagency guidance on subprime lending, which was finalized in June. After a series of hearings that began in June 2006, we used authority granted us under the Truth in Lending Act to issue rules that apply to all high-cost mortgage lenders, not just banks. However, these efforts came too late or were insufficient to stop the decline in underwriting standards and effectively constrain the housing bubble.”

In other words, we did nothing until 2005, and then we didn’t do much.

I don’t really care about apologies. The more important question is what Bernanke and the Fed will do in the future. On that front, he has this to say:

“The Federal Reserve is working not only to improve our ability to identify and correct problems in financial institutions, but also to move from an institution-by-institution supervisory approach to one that is attentive to the stability of the financial system as a whole. Toward that end, we are supplementing reviews of individual firms with comparative evaluations across firms and with analyses of the interactions among firms and markets. We have further strengthened our commitment to consumer protection. And we have strongly advocated financial regulatory reforms, such as the creation of a systemic risk council, that will reorient the country’s overall regulatory structure toward a more systemic approach. The crisis has shown us that indicators such as leverage and liquidity must be evaluated from a systemwide perspective as well as at the level of individual firms.”

There are basically only two things in this paragraph, one of which is disingenuous at best. Bernanke claims that he is getting serious about consumer protection, yet he has lobbied against the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, which everyone who is serious about consumer protection wants. I’m disappointed that Bernanke would stoop to this kind of misleading rhetoric.

The other thing is a lot of talk about systemic risk. Yes, systemic risk is important. But all the words I hear about it, and the fact that the importance of systemic risk is one of the few things that everyone can agree on, are making me start to worry. Specifically, I wonder if a lot of regulatory apparatus aimed at systemic risk will serve as a distraction from old-fashioned regulation of individual institutions. Yes, it’s true that the thing that hit us in 2008 was systemic risk. But it’s also true that regulators already had the power to supervise Citigroup, Bank of America, Wachovia, Washington Mutual, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and Countrywide and force them to pare back their risky activities–and didn’t. Talking about systemic risk is a way of passing the buck–of excusing regulatory failure by saying that regulators didn’t have the authority to look at systemic risk. But the fact remains that someone looked at Citigroup’s range of businesses and its asset portfolio and decided it was a healthy bank.That was at least as big a problem.

I’ve been on the fence about Bernanke’s confirmation, mainly because I’m not so optimistic we’ll get anyone better from a policy standpoint, and we could certainly get someone worse from the standpoint of intelligence, knowledge, thoughtfulness, and work ethic. But now that I’ve read this speech, I’m against confirmation.

About James Kwak 133 Articles

James Kwak is a former McKinsey consultant, a co-founder of Guidewire Software, and currently a student at the Yale Law School. He is a co-founder of The Baseline Scenario.

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