When the President of the United States, especially this President, and Wall Street, are of the same mind on an important matter like who the Fed chair should be, ordinary citizens need to hold on to their pocketbooks.
Having misjudged the gathering financial storm that would engulf much of the world (and in many ways still does) and then deciding to throw unprecedented amounts of liquidity at the problem (most of which was targeted at propping up and otherwise saving a colossally careless banking sector), Federal Reserve chairman Ben S. Bernanke is an odd choice for re-nomination in that post. Nevertheless, President Barack Obama did so today. Wall Street is pleased. When the President of the United States, especially this President, and Wall Street, are of the same mind on an important matter, ordinary citizens need to hold on to their pocketbooks.
In some respects Mr. Bernanke seems like the character from the Woody Allen movie “Zelig,” where an otherwise unimposing man has the inexplicable capacity to transform his appearance to impress those who surround him. We know that Wall Street and world bankers are impressed with Mr. Bernanke, given the size and generosity of the Fed’s discount window and the hundred and one other programs the Fed established in the prop-up and bailout department. And they are certainly impressed by his zero interest rate policy, which is putting billions into the banks as a result of this Fed-made upward sloping yield curve. It is because of Mr. Bernanke that the bonus compensation train has barely slowed from its previous bullet-like speed and companies like Goldman Sachs have been able to return to early profitability with the help of a (Fed-approved) $13 billion payment from AIG, courtesy of the American taxpayer.
The White House may see in Mr. Bernanke a fitting figure whose help will be needed to accommodate and finance the swelling national debt. Mr. Bernanke has already shown that he is not averse to printing money and using the Fed’s powers in out-of-the-box (i.e., expensive) ways. And a Fed head who presided over the largest expansion ever of that institution’s balance sheet is unlikely to cast too critical a glance at the prospect of a record national deficit.
Even most legislators seemed mesmerized by Mr. Bernanke’s appearances to the point where they forgot he was rather disingenuous when it came to explaining the mystery of the Bear Stearns junk assets, which the Fed claimed to be holding as collateral only to admit later that it owned the whole clunker. There are still unanswered questions about the Fed and Bank of America, the Fed and AIG and the Fed and Lehman Brothers.
Not to be forgotten in all of this is the fact that, as a member of the Fed under Alan Greenspan, Mr. Bernanke adopted the same blind obedience to the market forces that permitted the housing bubble to occur and showed no awareness whatever of the explosion of toxic financial instruments and the risk that was being incurred at the highest levels of American finance. Vision has not exactly been Mr. Bernanke’s forte, yet, looking forward, he claims that the Fed will know precisely when to begin to dismantle its Frankenstein-like creation. He makes it sound as simple as opening a new app on an iPhone.
But the more likely scenario is that the costs and consequences of the economy’s withdrawal from this Fed-led morphine-like addiction that dulled the realities of economic pain will be staggering. When interest rates spike, liquidity is withdrawn and inflation surges to new heights, and the economy again begins to falter from its so-called cure, Mr. Bernanke will become the least popular man in America, just as the Woody Allen character Leonard Zelig eventually lost his capacity to spellbind and incurred the wrath of everyone around him instead.
Larry Summers, long thought to be President Obama’s choice as Fed chair, saw what is looming ahead. That, more than anything, is why Mr. Bernanke gets to keep his job.
Our previous observations and misgivings about Mr. Bernanke and the Fed can be viewed here.