There is a lot of speculation over the reappointment of Ben Bernanke to continue to head the Fed, with the Obama Administration pushing hard. Of course, Wall Street is also calling in its favors. It looks like a done deal. The Administration has probably got the 60 votes required in the Senate to remove the hold, and the 51 votes needed for confirmation.
Does it matter? Well, on one level, this is a reward for incompetence—something that is never a good idea. Chairman Bernanke never saw “it” (the great financial crisis) coming, and indeed, actively promoted practices that made the crisis inevitable. However, on that score he is not nearly as guilty as his predecessor—Greenspan–who ruled monetary policy from 1987 to 2005. Poor Bernanke was left to clean up the mess, while Greenspan got to retire to great acclaim (that did not last long!). As the crisis unfolded, Bernanke had to learn on the job. While he was supposedly a student of the Great Depression and thus should have known what to do, in truth, he had always misunderstood the crisis of the 1930s. Hence, he has taken many half-steps and made many mis-steps over the past three years that made matters worse. Yet, if we look at where the Fed stands now, it has finally got to the position it should have immediately taken. It has satisfied the liquidity desires of the private financial system by expanding its own balance sheet to $2 trillion, and it is paying interest on reserves (reducing the “tax” on banks and simplifying interest rate targeting procedure). It took some time, but Bernanke finally figured out how to deal with the crisis. The liquidity crisis is over (at least for now). Banks are still insolvent—but that is a matter mostly for the FDIC, not for the Fed.
Here are my fears should Bernanke be reappointed.
1. He does not understand that “unwinding” the Fed’s balance sheet is nothing to be concerned about. As I have written previously, this will occur naturally as banks pay-off their loans that the Fed extended in the crisis, and as banks repurchase the assets they sold to the Fed to obtain reserves. However, Bernanke still seems to believe in the discredited “deposit multiplier” and believes the Fed will have to take action to drain reserves (“reverse the quantitative easing”) to prevent excess reserves from fueling inflation. This is nonsense. Banks do not lend reserves and existence of excess reserves does not make them more willing to lend. The Fed does not need to do anything more than to accommodate banks—no concerted action is required. Still, even in the worst case, the Fed will not be able to create a huge mess. Since it operates with an overnight interest rate target, if it tries to remove reserves that the banks want to hold, it will drive rates above the target—so will have to add back the reserves. This could create some uncertainty but it is not likely to generate any crisis.
2. Bernanke might appear to be a “born again” regulator, but that is highly doubtful. The Fed will never take regulation seriously because it is captured by Wall Street. So the important thing is to ensure that the Fed does not become the “super duper systemic regulator” that many are now proposing. This job needs to go to the FDIC, which has in the past actually done some regulating.
3. A win for Bernanke might energize the forces that want to keep Timmy Geithner and Larry Summers in their jobs. In truth, it is far more important to remove Timmy and Larry (and to remove Robert Rubin from his position as advisor to the administration). I have not seen any evidence that Bernanke has been corrupted by Wall Street. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Geithner and Summers—where apparent conflicts of interest abound, and questionable decisions have been taken that favor Wall Street institutions. And the Treasury is far more important than the Fed. If we are going to reregulate financial institutions (as Obama now seems inclined to do), we have got to have real regulators at the Treasury. Neither Timmy nor Larry has ever indicated any interest in “interfering” with Wall Street. Indeed, Geithner seems to have been leaking to the press his dissatisfaction with Obama’s recent proposals. Perhaps he is already angling for his Wall Street rewards—seeking a well-compensated position in a financial institution should he be fired.
To be clear, I would prefer to replace Bernanke with someone who actually understands monetary policy and who advocates regulation and supervision of financial institutions. Unfortunately, that looks unlikely. We need to turn our attention to Rubin, Geithner and Summers. Obama does not need any action by Congress to rid himself of these anchors that are dragging down his administration, as well as the Democratic party.