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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"The Dangers Ahead for Bernanke"

At the Room for Debate, we were asked "What’s the biggest challenge Mr. Bernanke faces in his second term?" Here are the answers:

My response:

One important challenge Mr. Bernanke will face is to keep the financial sector recovery on track by not raising interest rates too soon, while avoiding inflation by not raising interest rates too late. It will be a difficult balancing act, particularly with the complications that a large budget deficit adds. I’m quite confident Mr. Bernanke is up to the task.

But the most important challenge is how to restructure the financial sector to reduce its vulnerability to a collapse like the one we just experienced. That’s a task that will require both institutional and regulatory change.

Some of this the Fed can do on its own, but other parts require Congressional approval. As the financial sector has started to show signs of life, we are already hearing protests against regulation. The most prominent objection is that regulation will stifle new financial innovation (never mind that it was this innovation that helped to cause the predicament we are in).

My worry is that as time passes, we’ll forget how bad things were and the desire to impose necessary new regulation will fade. Here’s where I think Mr. Bernanke’s experience will be crucial. He was there at every step in the development of the Fed’s response to the crisis and he will not soon forget the problems he faced (nor repeat his mistakes), making it more likely that he’ll be a forceful and passionate advocate for new regulation before Congress.

For example, the Fed needs the authority to dismantle “too big to fail” financial firms, authority it lacked but very much needed during the crisis. Mr. Bernanke knows first hand how hard it was to manage the crisis without this authority. He’s also seen the consequences of an unregulated shadow banking sector, and he knows how bad incentives and poor market structures created problems that could have been avoided.

There are two other factors working in Mr. Bernanke’s favor. If the financial recovery goes as I expect, his reputation will grow, giving him the authority he needs to persuade Congress to make needed regulatory changes. And just as important, unlike some past Fed chairmen, he’s been able to articulate complex ideas in ways that legislators seem to understand.

Update: This is from Barry Ritholtz. It addresses the view held by many that Bernanke should not have been reappointed because he helped to create the housing bubble (which implicitly assumes the Fed is responsible for the bubble - I think the low interest rate policy after the dot.com crash was one source of the liquidity that fueled the housing boom, but not the only source, the global savings glut also played a role, and there were other failures, i.e. false promises of high returns with low risk, that caused the funds to flow into mortgage markets and related securities rather than into other investments):

I am less critical ... regarding the Bernanke renomination [and] his 3 year term as Governor. Let’s not forget that Greenspan was known as the Maestro back then. Congress, which is now pillorying Bernanke every appearance, was adoring of Easy Al’s visage and garbled Greenspeak each and every appearance. AG ran the Fed as an unchallenged stronghold, a fiefdom where he was the central-banker-in-chief as rock star. No one challenged him directly.

That seems to be lost in a lot of the revisionism now taking place. Roach writes “While America’s head central banker deserves credit for being creative and courageous in orchestrating an unusually aggressive monetary easing programme, it is important to remember that his pre-crisis actions played an equally critical role in setting the stage for the most wrenching recession since the 1930s.”

Not exactly. It was Greenspan’s Fed. Under his leadership, the FOMC and its governors were all second bananas to the Wolrd’s most famous banker. In Bailout Nation, I criticize this deference: “The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) must take responsibility for following [Greenspan] so obsequiously, especially in the latter years of his reign.”

However much I blame the FOMC, I have a hard time holding them to the same level of accountability as I do Greenspan. He was the master architect, the maestro conducting the monetary policy orchestra.

Second bananas cannot should the blame for what the head of the bunch does. Once they become banana-in-chief, the standards and level of accountability all go up accordingly.

    Posted by on Wednesday, August 26, 2009 at 09:42 AM in Economics, Monetary Policy | Permalink  Comments (64)


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