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Friday, August 28, 2009

Bernanke and Regulation of the Financial Sector

Economics of Contempt says I gave in too easily:

Bernanke's Reappointment, by Economics of Contempt: Bernanke's reappointment seems to be the topic of the day, so I suppose I'll weigh in as well. I think Bernanke absolutely deserves a second term. He reacted early and aggressively when strains in the funding markets first appeared back in the fall of 2007, after the two Bear Stearns hedge funds failed and the ABCP market shut down, and he's kept his foot on the gas ever since.

Everyone seems to be praising Bernanke for his "creativity" in responding to the financial crisis. While the Fed's various liquidity facilities have indeed been creative, they were almost certainly designed by the New York Fed's markets desk, not Bernanke. What Bernanke deserves credit for is his willingness to use these new and decidedly non-traditional facilities without hesitation. Like Paul Krugman said, a different Fed chairman might well have balked at these new facilities. Bernanke's willingness to approve the AMLF—the most creative of the new lending facilities—probably saved the entire prime money market fund sector, which was experiencing a full-blown bank run. (The Fed pumped $122 billion into money market funds in the first 7 days of the AMLF—and bear in mind that only money funds that were experiencing specified redemption pressures were even eligible for the AMLF in the first place.)

People who, like Kevin Drum, oppose Bernanke based on his regulatory views, simply haven't been paying attention. Drum claims that Bernanke "inherited and then perpetuated weak regulation of consumer loan products, something that aggravated the housing bubble." It's true that Bernanke inherited weak regulation of mortgages, but it's simply not true that he perpetuated that weak regulation. That sounds more like what Drum thinks Bernanke probably did (if he had to guess, and without looking at the record). In reality, the Fed adopted new regulations on subprime mortgages over a year ago, and there was nothing "light touch" about them. The Fed started the process of adopting new regulations on subprime mortgages way back in 2006, and the explicit focus from the beginning was on curbing the abuses of 2004/2005.

But a Fed chairman can't just wave his magic wand and have new regulations appear in Federal Register—the rulemaking process takes time. And when it comes to something like Reg Z, which is both controversial and complex, it often takes even longer than normal. Bernanke can't be blamed for sweeping the regulatory effort under the rug either. He devoted the bulk of his semiannual Humphrey-Hawkins testimony—the most high-profile testimony a Fed chairman gives—to the need for more regulation of subprime mortgages in July 2007. (He made the case for subprime mortgage regulation again a few months later, in even longer testimony.) The Board of Governors approved the final rule in July 2008.

Mark Thoma, who previously argued that Bernanke will be an effective regulator, actually concedes Drum's point, saying that his argument is probably "based more on hope than on evidence." Don't give up so easily, Professor Thoma! If anything, Thoma's argument is the one based on evidence, while Drum's seems to be based on a flawed memory.

[Read Barry Ritholz's post on disingenuous Bernanke bashing as well.]

    Posted by on Friday, August 28, 2009 at 07:11 PM in Economics, Financial System, Regulation | Permalink  Comments (8)


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