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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Should Bernanke Be Reappointed?

Nouriel Roubini says:

Ben 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.

Anna Schwartz has a different perspective:

As Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke has committed serious sins of commission and omission — and for those many sins, he does not deserve reappointment.

Here's how I see it. It's true that we failed to notice that the patient was getting sick. The signs of disease were there, but we either didn't see the signs or they were misdiagnosed. In fact, there's a case to be made that we saw some of the changes in the patient as signs of improving health. Had we made the correct diagnosis early enough, maybe we could have prevented the patient from getting sick (though it's not clear the patient would have taken our advice, so stronger measures than mere advice may have been required).

And once the patient showed up in the office and was clearly sick, we didn't get it right initially either. We thought the patient needed fluids - liquidity as they say - and the patient did need some of that, but we didn't immediately see that there were also some key nutrient deficiencies and chemical imbalances that were threatening to cause further problems.

Bu we kept at it with tests and other diagnostics, and eventually got a handle on the problem. Once we did, we began to administer the medicine the patient needed. The patient will get better, the deterioration was rapid and turning it around will be difficult - it won't happen fast enough to suit any of us - but what has been done prevented a complete collapse, and is helping to move the patient towards recovery.

So I'm with Nouriel, Bernanke should be reappointed. It's true that the progression of the underlying disease was largely missed, but that's pretty much true across the board, all the doctors missed it. It's also true that there was some dispute over how to interpret the initial symptoms and test results, and what to do to cure the patient. But again that was largely true across the board in the tumultuous period just after the patient began to exhibit clear and serious problems. It's not like everyone except the patient's doctors knew exactly what to do. The uncertainty in that initial period created fear, and the fear made the patient - who needed calm above all else - even worse off.

But as just noted, the doctors who were put in charge - Bernanke in particular - persevered and began to understand more precisely what was going wrong and what was needed, and that allowed them to save the patient from a much, much worse fate. They deserve credit for that. The patient will live, and that wasn't always so clear. In the initial confusion they did what you need to do - they administered wide spectrum drugs and other procedures that were known to abate the symptoms they were observing, and these did help, and that gave them time to find more targeted remedies. They used the time wisely to find and structure better remedies, and once those remedies were ready they used them to attack the various ways in which the disease was shutting down vital systems (not everything they tried worked, but the things that did work helped quite a bit).

There was one scary point, however, and that was when they thought the patient had become strong enough to go without the medicine, and they withdrew it too soon (the Lehman episode). The result was that they almost lost the patient completely, and only quick action saved the day. That's the one point where I think the doctors could have done better. I understand the concerns over the side effects of this medicine, but it was too soon and it created too much unnecessary uncertainty and fear.

But overall, they did the things that needed to be done to make sure the patient did not suffer an even worse, prolonged, debilitating collapse, and those efforts were successful. Failing to diagnose a disease is different from not knowing what to do once you figure it out. The disease was a difficult one to diagnose or it wouldn't have missed so widely, and it wasn't clear at first precisely what was wrong, but in every case, once they understood the problem, they took the proper course of action.

Here's the question I ask myself. If I were to suddenly come down with the same disease, would I want the current group with it's current leadership in charge of bringing me back to health, or would I want a different group led by someone new who thinks they know what to do, but has never actually been through it? I'd want this group, the one with experience. They're likely to have learned enough to spot the disease the next time and head it off all together, one hopes so. But if not and I get the disease, they are also likely to know just what to do - while avoiding the missteps they took the first time - to get me back on my feet as fast as possible (and please don't let politicians second guess them).

    Posted by on Sunday, July 26, 2009 at 01:08 AM in Economics, Financial System, Monetary Policy | Permalink  Comments (85)


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