Will Time Prove Ben Bernanke Wrong?

(This piece appeared on NPR.org on 8/25/09)

President Obama has reappointed Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, praising his creativity in preventing another Great Depression.

Talk about damning with faint praise.

It’s true that we appear to have avoided the worst-case scenarios of the last year, but at what price?

Back in March of 2008, Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson engineered a rescue of Bear Stearns. A single suitor, JP Morgan Chase, was chosen to receive a sweetheart deal in the name of avoiding a credit freeze. The freeze came anyway. The Bear Stearns rescue was the beginning of an unprecedented expansion of power in the hands of the Fed and the Treasury with a level of opaque decision-making that is not appropriate for a democracy.

Even today we have heard little justification for the expansion of the Fed’s power and the Fed’s balance sheet.

Yes, we have avoided a depression. But let us count the costs.

Financial firms that made irresponsible and imprudent decisions have been rescued, propped up and bailed out.

AIG has received about $180 billion. That is almost $2,000 for every American household. That money has gone to sustain the bonuses of AIG and the financial health of its counterparties, such as Goldman Sachs. This is an obscene travesty.

The Fed currently holds $600 billion worth of Fannie, Freddie and Ginnie mortgage-backed securities. I am not optimistic about how that will turn out.

The Fed has injected hundreds of billions of reserves into member banks. This will fuel future inflation unless Bernanke is willing to raise interest rates when the recovery begins. There will be tremendous political pressure on him not to do so. So inflation is likely to come along with any recovery.

Worst of all, Bernanke, Paulson and Timothy Geithner have continued the disastrous policy of sustaining bondholders and creditors of reckless financial institutions. Capitalism is a profit-and-loss system. The profits encourage risk-taking. The losses encourage prudence. The bondholders and creditors are the single most important check on imprudence. They care only about one thing: solvency. By making them whole, their incentive to restrain recklessness has been greatly weakened. This sows the seeds of the next financial crisis.

I feel sorry for Bernanke. In one sense, as the world’s greatest living authority on the Great Depression, he is the best man for the job. But because he is the world’s greatest living authority on the Great Depression, another catastrophic economic debacle of a similar magnitude would be particularly embarrassing were it to occur on his watch. I believe he has gone too far in the other direction.

The Great Depression was caused, or at least greatly worsened, by too little liquidity. Bernanke has avoided that mistake. He has instead committed the opposite mistake of too much liquidity and too few failures. Obama has praised him. How history judges him will be the real test.

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