In a crisis, the other thing the Fed does is to “provide liquidity”—that is, it lends reserves to prevent bank runs. This has been widely accepted policy since the 1840s and there is no central bank anywhere in the world that would not act as a lender of last resort in the sort of situation Bernanke faced. In fact, Bernanke was a bit slow to the gate on this, and never seemed to fully understand what he was doing. While he should have lent reserves without limit, to all comers, and against any kind of collateral, he played around with a variety of limited auctions, let a major financial institution fail due to lack of access to the Fed’s lending, and demanded good collateral for far too long. If anything, the Fed’s slow learning curve contributed to the crisis. Man of the year? I think not.
Finally, the Fed is supposed to be a regulator of financial institutions—through the thick and thin of the business cycle. Let us suppose a counterfactual: what if Bernanke had been a competent regulator from the time of his appointment? In truth, he consistently and persistently opposed any regulation that might have prevented this crisis, but in that he only followed his predecessor. And most of the damage had been done, with Greenspan at the helm since 1987 and with most of the important deregulation already accomplished by 2000. Clearly Bernanke deserves a grade of D- as a regulator (Timmy proudly earned an F when he testified before Congress that in all his years at the helm of the NY Fed he had never acted as a regulator!). So, he is certainly no worse than a Rubin or a Paulson and by 2005 when he was appointed he would not have had sufficient time or influence to overcome all the damage that had already been done. But a Man of the Year might have at least sounded a warning—rather than continually claiming even through summer 2007 that all was fine and dandy.
Bernanke will win reappointment. He has probably learned a bit as a result of this crisis so he will be a better head in his second term than he was in his first. Much is made of his scholarship that focused on the Great Depression. It is indeed a great advance over the work of Milton Friedman, who claimed the Fed caused the crisis by reducing the money supply. Bernanke also blamed the Fed for the initiation of the crisis, but the prolonged depression resulted because of the failure of financial institutions—which disrupted the relation between banks and their customers. When the bank of a farmer or entrepreneur failed, they were unable to borrow to finance operations—which collapsed production and employment. This is probably why Bernanke wants to prop up Wall Street institutions at all costs, to get “credit flowing again”. What he does not understand is that Wall Street banking has evolved—these are not lenders. They are speculators that serve no useful public purpose. If Bernanke were ever to figure that out, and would start to close down these predators, then he might deserve to be called Maestro.