Federal Reserve

Fed Chief Bernanke: In Trouble in the Senate?

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Some Senators are wondering if Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke even deserves to keep his job. The ZeroHedge blog quotes a Hill account of Bernanke's potential political trouble in his reconfirmation hearings, and provides a useful list of of questions that Ben should be asked in his confirmation hearings. I don't think every one is a fair gotcha, but certainly many are. For examples:

1. The TARP Inspector General recently disclosed that the New York Federal Reserve did not believe that AIG's credit-default swap (CDS) counterparties posed a systemic financial risk. In Congressional testimony and elsewhere, you have stated repeatedly that AIG posed a systemic risk based partly on its CDS obligations [source: Bernanke's testimony to the House Financial Services Committee, 3/24/09]. Explain this apparent contradiction. What was your specific role in the decision to pay AIG's counterparties 100 cents on the dollar?

2. On May 5, 2009, in front of the Joint Economic Committee, you said the following about the unemployment rate: "Currently, we don't think it will get to 10 percent. Our current number is somewhere in the 9s" [source]. In November it hit 10.2%, and many economists predict it will go even higher. This is happening despite enormous fiscal and monetary stimulus that you previously said would help create jobs. What happened after your JEC testimony in May that caused your prediction to miss the mark?

3. It's now widely accepted that loose monetary policy is at least partly to blame for the credit bubble and subsequent crash. You played an important role in that policy. For eight straight meetings of the FOMC, from June 2003 to May 2004, you voted to keep the Fed funds rate at 1%. But transcripts of recently-released FOMC meetings show you wanted the FOMC to consider cutting rates even further. In the August 12, 2003 meeting, with the Fed already at 1%, you said:

    Despite the good news, I think it's premature to conclude that we should not consider further rate cuts, if not at this meeting then at some time in the near future depending on how the data play out. [source: transcript of FOMC meeting on 8/12/03, page 63]

How much worse would the bubble and subsequent crash have been if you had gotten your way? What do your comments in that meeting imply about your ability to correctly time the reversal of the Fed's current accommodative policy?

4. Forecasts are an important part of the Fed's work. Monetary policy by nature depends on forecasts, making predictive ability an essential part of the job description for any Fed chairman. Yet your record of predictions, including the one about unemployment in (2) above, is questionable at best. Some examples [source]:

March 28, 2007: "The impact on the broader economy and financial markets of the problems in the subprime markets seems likely to be contained."

May 17, 2007: "We do not expect significant spillovers from the subprime market to the rest of the economy or to the financial system."

Feb. 28, 2008, on the potential for bank failures: "Among the largest banks, the capital ratios remain good and I don't expect any serious problems of that sort among the large, internationally active banks that make up a very substantial part of our banking system."

June 9, 2008: "The risk that the economy has entered a substantial downturn appears to have diminished over the past month or so."

July 16, 2008: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are "adequately capitalized" and "in no danger of failing."

Explain this pattern of terrible predictions and forecasts. What do they imply about your ability to conduct policy going forward? Is there some fatal flaw in your economic models or forecasting tools? Are you just winging it?….

9. In a scenario in which unemployment remains uncomfortably high, but the dollar continues to fall and commodities including oil and gold continue to rise, what would the Fed do? At what point do market signals take priority over hard-to-measure statistics like the output gap?…..

12. What does the surge in gold mean to you? At what price level would it begin to worry you, if it doesn't already? Does gold have any impact on the Fed's policy deliberations?

UPDATE: The set of questions quoted above did not originate at ZeroHedge where I came across them, but at the "Cunning Realist" blog.

Gold breaks $1,200 and has been above $1,000 for over a month now. My November Reason magazine feature on the rise and mainstreaming of anti-Federal Reserve thought and sentiment.