Bernanke Feared a Second Great Depression – WSJ.com


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The great depression was the last US gold standard depression.

A gold standard is fixed exchange rate policy characterized by a continuous constraint on the supply side of the currency.

Interest rates are endogenous, and even the treasury must first borrow before it can deficit spend, and in doing so compete with other borrowers for funds from potential lenders who have the option to convert their currency into gold. Therefore interest rates always represent indifference rates between holding securities and holding the gold.

With non convertible currency the central bank is left to set interest rates as holders of the currency no longer have the option to convert the currency into gold. Without conversion rights, there are no supply side constraints on credit expansion, and government can therefore offer the credible deposit insurance necessary to sustain the functioning of the payments system.
Bernanke failed to recognize this and therefore saw systemic risks that weren’t there, and also failed to act in line with the tools available to the Fed that would not have been available under the previous gold standard. The most obvious is unsecured lending to member banks, as I have been proposing for a number of years.

With today’s non convertible currency and floating exchange rate policy the fiscal ‘automatic stabilizers’ functioned as they always have during previous recessions, and as the deficit got above 5% of GDP at year end it was enough to reverse the downward spiral and turn things around.

This could not have happened under a gold standard. Before the deficit got anywhere near that large it would have driven up interest rates at an accelerating pace and the gold while the national gold reserves were being rapidly depleted.

We’ve seen this happen most recently with Argentina in 2001 and Russia in 1998 where similar fixed exchange rate regimes had similar outcomes.

We’ve also seen failures of logic regarding how the FDIC handled banking system stresses. The FDIC can simply ‘take over’ any bank it deems insolvent, and then decide whether to continue operations, sell off the assets, replace management, etc. This can be done and has been done in an orderly manner without ‘business interruption.’

The alternative in this cycle- having the treasury ‘add capital’- in my opinion was a major error for a variety of reasons.

When a bank loses capital, there is then less private capital left to lose before the FDIC starts taking losses. When the treasury buys capital in the banks, the amount of private capital remains the same. All that changes is that should subsequent losses exceed the remaining private capital, the treasury rather than the FDIC takes the loss. For all practical purposes both are government agencies, so for all practical purposes this changes nothing regarding risk to government. The FDIC could have just as easily accomplished the same thing by allowing the banks in question to continue to operate but under the same terms and conditions set by the treasury (not that those would have been my terms and conditions).

Instead, substantial political capital was burned and numerous accounting issues and interagency issues confused and distorted including ‘adding to the federal deficit’ when there was nothing that altered aggregate demand.

We have paid a high price for financial leaders being completely out of paradigm and in this way over their heads.

Bernanke Feared a Second Great Depression

By Sudeep Reddy

July 27 (WSJ) — Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on Sunday said he engineered the central bank’s controversial actions over the past year because “I was not going to be the Federal Reserve chairman who presided over the second Great Depression.”

Speaking directly to Americans in a forum to be shown on public television this week, Mr. Bernanke pushed back against Kansas City area residents who suggested he and other government officials were too eager to help big financial institutions before small businesses and common Americans.

“Why don’t we just let the behemoths lay down and then make room for the small businesses?” asked Janelle Sjue, who identified herself as a Kansas City mother.

“It wasn’t to help the big firms that we intervened,” Mr. Bernanke said, diving into a discourse on the damage to the overall economy that can result when financial firms that are “too big to fail” collapse.

“When the elephant falls down, all the grass gets crushed as well,” Mr. Bernanke said. He described himself as “disgusted” with the circumstances that led him to rescue a couple of large firms, and called for new laws that would allow financial firms other than banks to fail without going into bankruptcy.

Mr. Bernanke appeared stoic at times as he sought to explain his actions during the financial crisis at the town-hall-style meeting with 190 people at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City hosted by the NewsHour’s Jim Lehrer. But he also joked with the crowd, saying “economic forecasting makes weather forecasting look like physics.” He quipped that he could face malpractice charges if he offered investment advice — although he then recommended that a questioner practice diversification and avoid trying to time the stock market.

The hourlong session was the latest unusual forum where the Fed chairman has explained his actions in recent months, including bailouts and massive lending. Mr. Bernanke appeared before the National Press Club in February, agreed to an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” in March and took questions on camera from Morehouse College students in April.

Sunday’s setting offered the former Princeton economics professor a chance to speak outside of congressional testimony and speeches to economists, as his tenure leading the central bank faces increasing scrutiny. With just six months left in his term as chairman, Mr. Bernanke will learn in the coming months whether President Barack Obama will reappoint him to another four-year term or replace him.

Mr. Bernanke repeatedly used the frustrations voiced by people in the room to show his limited options during the crisis and reiterate the need for a regulatory overhaul.

David Huston, who called himself a third-generation small-business owner, said he was “very frustrated” to see “billions and billions of dollars” sent to large financial firms and called the government approach “too big to fail, too small to save.”

“Small businesses represent the lifeblood of small cities, large cities and our American economy,” he said, and they are “getting shortchanged by the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Department and Congress.”

Mr. Bernanke responded that “nothing made me more frustrated, more angry, than having to intervene” when firms were “taking wild bets that had forced these companies close to bankruptcy.”

More than 20 people asked questions of the Fed chairman, on topics ranging from bailouts to mortgage-regulation practices to the Fed’s independence, a topic that drew the most forceful tone from the Fed chairman. Mr. Bernanke suggested that a movement by lawmakers to open the Fed’s monetary-policy operations to audits by the Government Accountability Office is misunderstood by the public.

Congress already can look at the Fed’s books and loans that could be at risk for taxpayers, he said. Under the proposed law, the GAO would also be able to subpoena information from Fed officials and make judgments about interest-rate decisions based on requests from Congress.

“I don’t think that’s consistent with independence,” he said. “I don’t think people want Congress making monetary policy.”

After appearing before lawmakers three times last week, Mr. Bernanke broke little new ground in explaining the state of the economy. He said the Fed’s expected economic growth rate of 1% in the second half of the year would fall short of what is needed to bring down unemployment, which he sees peaking sometime next year.

“The Federal Reserve has been putting the pedal to the metal,” he says. “We hope that’s going to get us going next year sometime.”


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