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4. Ben Bernanke is a heroic leader.
“The man next to me, Ben Bernanke, has led the Fed through one of the worst financial crises that this nation and the world has ever faced,” Obama said when nominating Bernanke for a second term as Fed chairman. “As an expert on the causes of the Great Depression, I’m sure Ben never imagined that he would be part of a team responsible for preventing another. But because of his background, his temperament, his courage, and his creativity, that’s exactly what he has helped to achieve.”
Seconding that emotion, Time anointed Bernanke its 2009 Person of the Year, swooning over the Fed chairman’s cranial power, his “tired eyes,” and such bold action as lowering interest rates to zero and paying banks to keep deposits in the Fed’s vaults—none of which has translated into noticeable economic health during the last two years. (See Lie No. 5.) “He wishes Americans understood that he helped save the irresponsible giants of Wall Street only to protect ordinary folks on Main Street,” Time wrote.
Alas, no sooner had the year turned than Bernanke’s reality distortion field began to fail. His reappointment, though inevitable, turned out to be a bigger challenge than expected, with a left-right Senate coalition rising up to make hay out of Bernanke’s abundantly documented record of wrong bets and absurd predictions. Had Bernanke limited himself to defending fictions about his own career, he might have stayed out of trouble. Yet he continues to maintain, in one of many examples, that former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s artificially low interest rates in the early part of Decade Zero did not contribute to the real estate bubble. The hapless banking chief’s performance may have been summed up best by the financial blogger Mish Shedlock: “Bernanke did not get a single thing right.”
5. The worst is behind us.
“Here is what I know,” Larry Summers, Obama’s top economic adviser, told ABC in December. “We were talking about Depression; we were talking about the financial system collapsing. Today, everybody agrees that the recession is over, and the question is what the pace of the expansion is going to be.”
Shortly after Summers made that comment, third-quarter GDP numbers were revised downward substantially. (They have traveled from 3.5 percent to 2.8 percent to 2.2 percent so far.) Former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker told Der Spiegel in December 2009, “You know, people get very technical about these things. We had a quarter of increased growth, but I don’t think we are out of the woods.” In January regional unemployment rates, which had shown some signs of improvement, began moving up again. The unwinding of consumer and homeowner credit continues. Christmas spending turned out to be only slightly higher (around 1 percent, according to MasterCard’s Spending-Pulse unit) in 2009 than in 2008—when, according to Summers and others, the United States was flirting with depression and financial collapse. The only good news: a return to GDP growth in the second half of 2009, based largely on inventory investment and nonresidential fixed investment, not a return to demand or underlying growth.
But the truly dire evidence is in real estate, the market that drove both the bubble and the bust. A record 7.6 percent of U.S. homeowners are at least 30 days late on payments, according to Equifax, and delinquencies continue to rise at an increasing pace. About 1.2 million loans out there are in limbo: The borrower is in serious default, but the bank has not started the foreclosure process. Another 1.5 million are in the early stages of the foreclosure process, but the banks haven’t yet taken possession of the homes. By a conservative estimate, there may be 3 million to 4 million foreclosed homes coming onto the market in the next few years. This is the inevitable, and salubrious, reaction to many years of real estate inflation, and it will continue to happen no matter how hard the government pretends it can control economic outcomes. See Lie No. 1.
Contributing Editor Tim Cavanaugh (email@example.com) writes from Los Angeles.