By Marshall Auerback
There are any number of reasons why Ben Bernanke should not be reconfirmed, notwithstanding the vote in his favor by the Senate committee last week.
1. Let’s start by using some criteria laid out by Bernanke himself. When first nominated as chairman of the Federal Reserve, Mr. Bernanke promised a greater degree of transparency than his predecessor, but has completely stonewalled anybody seeking to obtain clarification of the events surrounding the credit crisis and more specifically, the role of the Federal Reserve. Any information disclosed would have facilitated a proper assessment of Bernanke’s job performance (which is probably one of the reasons the Fed chairman doesn’t want it released) and, more importantly, would have created a foundation for useful forensic work to prevent recurrences going forward.
Understanding what the decision-making was prior to and during the crisis is key to evaluating Bernanke’s performance and to improving performance in general. Post mortems are standard in sports and medicine. Why not here? And, more importantly, why does Bernanke continue to oppose it? Even the Swiss National Bank has provided a higher level of disclosure and transparency on the banking crisis to its public than has hitherto been agreed by the Bernanke Fed.
2. The Fed chairman claims unique expertise on the grounds of his scholarship of the Great Depression. Few have actually challenged him on the basis of these academic credentials, yet Bernanke holds these out as if they are manifest proof of his appropriateness for the position as head of the Federal Reserve. Ironically, even though Bernanke drew heavily on the work of both Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz for his own scholarship of the period, Ms Schwartz herself has been enormously critical
of the Fed’s conduct both pre-crisis and in seeing providing liquidity as the primary solution. She also warned explicitly against drawing comparisons between the gold standard era Depression and now. Additionally, Bernanke’s reading of the Depression (which is pretty conventional, that the Fed blew it by not providing more liquidity) ascribed little significance to fiscal policy, which has led Bernanke toward wrongheaded “solutions” such as “quantitative easing” and an alphabet soup of lending facilities, none of which did anything to enhance aggregate demand. Consistent with that, the Fed chairman been on the wrong side of fiscal policy, urging the Congress to balance the budget, at least longer term, which suggests that he learned nothing of the fiscal successes of the New Deal.
3. Bernanke’s consistent advocacy of “quantitative easing” perpetuates the silly notion that the Fed has had something to do with the economic “recovery” (a line which Time Magazine had readily embraced in its selection of the Fed Chairman as “Person of the Year”). He has ascribed little importance to the existence of the automatic stabilizers and indeed has persistently fed the misguided notion that the Federal government had limited fiscal resources.
The mainstream belief is that quantitative easing will stimulate the economy sufficiently to put a brake on the downward spiral of lost production and the increasing unemployment. But as Bill Mitchell as pointed
out, quantitative easing merely involves the central bank buying longer dated higher yielding bonds in exchange for deposits made by the central bank in the commercial banking system – that is, crediting their reserve accounts: “[QE] is based on the erroneous belief that the banks need reserves before they can lend and that quantitative easing provides those reserves. That is a major misrepresentation of the way the banking system actually operates.” In the real world, the creation of a loan and (concurrently) a deposit by a bank are in no way constrained by the quantity of reserves. Instead, the terms set by the central bank for acquiring reserves (which then also affects the rates banks borrow at in money markets) affect a bank’s profit margin on a newly created loan. Thus, expanding its balance sheet can create a potential short position in reserves, and thus the profitability
of newly created loans, not the bank’s ability
to create the loan.
Banks, then, lend to any credit worthy customer they can find and then worry about their reserve positions afterwards. Even the BIS recognizes this. Unfortunately our Federal Reserve chairman either does not know this (in which case his ignorance disqualifies him for another term in office) or he deliberately misrepresents the actual benefits of QE (duplicity being another good ground for disqualification for a 2nd term). The current incoherence of our economic policy making could diminish if we had a Fed chairman who understood the importance of fiscal policy, rather than one who downplays its significance. Which leads to point 4 below.
4. The Fed chairman continues to demonstrate a tremendous conceptual confusion at the heart of the current crisis, particularly in regard to the banking sector. He actively supported TARP on the grounds that repairing the banks balance sheets would somehow “unblock” credit flows and thereby enhance economic activity. The whole notion of repairing bank balance sheet is a lie and misdirection. The balance sheets we should want to see repaired are household balance sheets. Banks have failed us profoundly. We want them reorganized, not repaired. This will never happen as long as this apologist for Wall Street remains head of the Fed. A world in which the banks are all fixed but households are still broken is worse than what we have right now. Too-big-to-fail banks restored to health are too-big-to-fail banks restored to power. The idea that fixing legacy banks is prerequisite to fixing the broad economy is a lie perpetrated by, amongst others, the Federal Reserve Chairman.
For all of these reasons, Bernanke must go.