Tag Archives: Ben Bernanke

Ben Bernanke Doesn’t Get the Message

By James Kwak

I was on vacation last week (far from Jackson Hole) when Ben Bernanke gave his widely anticipated speech. The media (see the Times, for example) seemed to focus mainly on his criticisms of the political branches and economic policymaking, which were accurate enough. But in my opinion, Bernanke drew the wrong lessons from those observations.

He was very clear that the problem today is unemployment, not inflation:

“Recent data have indicated that economic growth during the first half of this year was considerably slower than the Federal Open Market Committee had been expecting, and that temporary factors can account for only a portion of the economic weakness that we have observed. Consequently, although we expect a moderate recovery to continue and indeed to strengthen over time, the Committee has marked down its outlook for the likely pace of growth over coming quarters. With commodity prices and other import prices moderating and with longer-term inflation expectations remaining stable, we expect inflation to settle, over coming quarters, at levels at or below the rate of 2 percent, or a bit less, that most Committee participants view as being consistent with our dual mandate.”

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Paul Ryan Criticizes Bernanke for Failing to Contain Tooth Fairy

By James Kwak

In a Congressional hearing today, Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), chair of the House Budget Committee, strongly criticized Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke for failing to contain the severe inflation threat posed by the Tooth Fairy.

Ryan pointed to numerous studies showing that, despite ongoing economic sluggishness, the Tooth Fairy is paying much more for children’s baby teeth than in past years. In neighborhoods such as Winnetka, Cleveland Park, the Upper East Side, and Palo Alto, children can receive more than $20 per tooth — a dramatic increase from the 25-50 cents that the Tooth Fairy paid only a decade or two ago. In the Hamptons, summertime prices for teeth can easily exceed $100, according to a survey commissioned by the American Enterprise Institute.* Because the Tooth Fairy is able to create money magically, her purchases of unused teeth (with no apparent economic value**) increase the money supply, fueling inflation. Without explicitly accusing Bernanke of participation in the Tooth Fairy’s scheme, Ryan implied that the Tooth Fairy’s higher payouts may be part of the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing scheme.

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Volcker And Bernanke: So Close And Yet So Far

By Simon Johnson

In case you were wondering, Paul Volcker is still pressing hard for the Senate (and Congress, at the end of the day) to adopt some version of both “Volcker Rules”.  It’s an uphill struggle – the proposed ban on proprietary trading (i.e., excessive risk-taking by government-backed banks) is holding on by its fingernails in the Dodd bill and the prospective cap on bank size is completely missing.  But Mr. Volcker does not give up so easily – expect a firm yet polite diplomatic offensive from his side (although the extent of White House support remains unclear), including some hallmark tough public statements.  It’s all or nothing now for both Volcker and the rest of us.

But at the same time as the legislative prospects look bleak (although not impossible), we should recognize that Paul Volcker has already won important adherents to his general philosophy on big banks, including – most amazingly of late – Ben Bernanke, at least in part.  In a speech Saturday, Bernanke was blunt,

“It is unconscionable that the fate of the world economy should be so closely tied to the fortunes of a relatively small number of giant financial firms. If we achieve nothing else in the wake of the crisis, we must ensure that we never again face such a situation [like fall 2008].” Continue reading

Fed Chair as Confidence Man

I’m not the one saying it–that would be Robert Samuelson, columnist for Newsweek and the Washington Post. The sole point of Samuelson’s recent opinion piece is that Ben Bernanke’s job is to increase confidence.

Like much but not all error, there is a grain of truth to this point. Thanks to John Maynard Keynes (whom Samuelson cites), George Akerlof, Robert Shiller, and any number of economics experiments, we know that confidence has an effect on behavior and hence on the economy. Too much overconfidence can fuel a bubble and too much pessimism can exacerbate a slowdown.

But to leap from there to the conclusion that the job of the chair of the Federal Reserve is to increase confidence–”Ben Bernanke has, or ought to have, a very simple agenda: improve confidence”–is just silly.

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A Colossal Failure Of Governance: The Reappointment of Ben Bernanke

When representatives of American power encounter officials in less rich countries, they are prone to suggest that any failure to reach the highest standards of living is due in part to weak political governance in general and the failure of effective oversight in particular.   Current and former US Treasury officials frequently remark this or that government “lacks the political will” to exercise responsible economic policy or even replace a powerful official who has clearly become a problem.

There is much to be said for this view.  When a minister or even the head of a strong government agency is no longer acting in the best interests of any country – but is still backed by powerful special interests — who has the authority, the opportunity, and the fortitude to stand up and be counted?

Fortunately, our constitution grants the Senate the power to approve or disapprove key government appointments, and over the past 200 plus years this has served many times as an effective check on both executive authority and overly strong lobbies – who usually want their own, unsuitable, person to be kept on the job.

Unfortunately, two massive failures of governance at the level of the Senate also spring to mind: first, the strange case of Alan Greenspan, which stretched over nearly two decades; second, Ben Bernanke, reappointed today (Thursday). Continue reading

My Last Post on Ben Bernanke

His confirmation, that is. I summarized most of my position in Foreign Policy, which asked me to lay out the anti-confirmation argument. My reasons overlap with Simon’s but are not identical–I think Simon worries about cheap money and asset bubbles more than I do. I was originally not particularly motivated by the anti-Bernanke campaign, because I didn’t think Obama would appoint anyone better, but as Russ pointed out, whether Bernanke should be confirmed and what the alternative is are two separate questions.

Whom would I pick? I certainly don’t know the candidates well enough to make a good choice. But the first thing I would say is that the Federal Reserve chair does not need to be Superman. The Federal Reserve Board of Governors is a board, and while the chair is important, he or she should really be the first among equals. You want someone who will push the Board in a certain direction, but the chair can draw on the experience and skills of the other board members and the staff, who are technically very competent. The idea that the chair must be Superman seems to be a product of the Greenspan era, and we project it back onto Volcker because of his success in fighting inflation in the early 1980s. And it’s a bad idea, just like searching for a savior CEO. In this context, I think it’s limiting to insist that the nominee have experience on the board, or have government experience, or be a prominent academic, or anything in particular.

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Move Over, Bernanke

Ben Bernanke is Person of the Year. Matt Yglesias has criticism, although he does say it was an appropriate choice. Now, the Time award is meant to recognize newsworthiness, not necessarily exceptional conduct, and it’s hard to deny that Bernanke has been newsworthy. But I think that 2008 was Bernanke’s year, not 2009–that was the year of the real battle to prevent the collapse of the financial system. As far as the crisis is concerned, I would say the face of 2009 has been Tim Geithner–PPIP, stress tests (largely conducted by the Fed, but Geithner was the front man), Saturday Night Live, regulatory “reform,” and so on. But I can see why Time didn’t want to go there. Besides, I’m not sure that the financial crisis was the story of 2009; what about the recession? They’re related, obviously, but they’re not the same thing.

But in real news, Simon was named Public Intellectual of the Year by Prospect Magazine (UK). (This year they seem to have restricted themselves to financial crisis figures; David Petraeus won in 2008.) Over Ben Bernanke, among others. (Conversely, Simon didn’t make Time‘s list of “25 people who mattered”–but Jon and Kate Gosselin did, so that’s no surprise.) The article says that Simon “has also done more than any academic to popularise his case: writing articles, a must-read blog, and appearing tirelessly on television,” which sounds about right to me.

Prospect got one thing wrong, though. The article has a cartoon of Simon holding a sledgehammer and towering over a Citigroup in ruins. But no matter how many times you keep taking whacks at Citigroup, it refuses to die. One hundred years from now, maybe people will still be saying there are two common ingredients in all U.S. financial crisis: excess borrowing … and Citibank.

Update: I should have made clear that I prefer my award.

By James Kwak