If Ben Bernanke’s predecessor as Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan, could be dubbed the Maestro, Bernanke surely deserves to be called the Magician. His mastery of illusion and deflection is impeccable.
Bernanke, who goes before the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday in a bid to be confirmed to a second term, still wants us to believe he “done good” by cleaning up the financial mess that was created on his watch. But here are 10 reasons Bernanke shouldn’t be reconfirmed:
A confirmation of Bernanke would affirm that the Fed can do whatever it wants, no matter what the cost, as long as we live under the ethos that making bad decisions is better than making worse ones.
1) His view of what constitutes “transparency” is dubious. About 300 members of Congress have thrown their support behind Ron Paul’s HR1207 Audit the Fed bill, which would further inspect the Fed’s clandestine love affair with the big banks. But Bernanke has told Congress that providing too much detail about what the Fed did for the banks would be “counterproductive.” Thus, the man who wrote in a pre-emptive Washington Post op-ed that “In its making of monetary policy, the Fed is highly transparent” doesn’t feel the same way about its Wall Street Welfare strategy.
2) He’s managed to raise more anti-Fed sentiment than any other Fed leader. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) put a hold on Bernanke’s confirmation Wednesday, meaning it would take 60 senators to override Sanders to confirm Bernanke, instead of a simple majority. The chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Christopher Dodd (D-CT), has called for stripping the Federal Reserve of its supervisory powers. “StopBailoutBen” petitions litter the Internet. Many other Washingtonians have called for a reduction in the Fed’s powers, even as others, notably President Obama and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, want to pile it on thicker.
3) Bernanke didn’t have a clue or a prevention strategy during the buildup to the second biggest financial crisis in U.S. history. Despite being a noted scholar of the first Great Depression, he missed the rapid increase in foreclosures during 2006 and 2007, the $14 trillion subprime-related toxic asset bubble, $2 trillion buildup of collateralized debt obligations, extreme leverage buildup that laced past mega-profits, labyrinth of off-book bank games, and every credit derivatives issue.
4) He abetted the notion of too big to fail. Bernanke instigated a slew of new bank mergers that have rendered the biggest banks bigger and more complex, and harder to regulate than ever before. In 2004, the five largest U.S. banks held 34 percent of all commercial bank assets; today they hold 48 percent.
5) He invited investment banks to come under the federal subsidy tent. Moniker changes approved by the Fed on Bernanke’s watch mean that former investment banks Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley became bank holding companies, with access to federal perks, despite taking investment banking-type risk.
6) As far as Main Street, Bernanke’s accuracy is about as bad as Dick Cheney’s with a rifle. In June 2008, he said, “despite a recent spike in the nation’s unemployment rate, the danger that the economy has fallen into a ‘substantial downturn’ appears to have waned.” That was when unemployment was 5.6 percent; it’s now at 10.2 percent.
7) He lied about loosening credit. He vowed that dumping money into Wall Street would help the free flow of credit—which it did for the banks, but not for ordinary Americans—and made eerie promises that “More capital injections and guarantees may become necessary” to keep the credit wheels greased. So what? Last month, he acknowledged that despite the Fed’s unprecedented assistance, “bank lending has contracted sharply this year.”
8) Bernanke said the government shouldn’t “bail out failed investors, as doing so would only encourage excessive risk-taking,” and then went overboard doing it anyway. He also has said that “it is not the responsibility of the Federal Reserve—nor would it be appropriate—to protect lenders and investors from the consequences of their financial decisions.”
Yet a year later, the Fed’s bailout measures, meant to be an “antidote” to risk-taking gone wrong, were more than excessive. Bernanke effectively turned the Fed into the worst kind of hedge fund, holding unsellable collateral in the hope that it would be worth more someday, or that the banks that posted it are good for paying back the cheap loans they got in return.
Under Bernanke’s direction, the biggest banks got aid from eight separate Federal Reserve facilities created or extended during the fall of 2008. These facilities were worth $4.8 trillion at their height and are now still worth $3.5 trillion. A bulk of them—six of eight—went through the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, subsidizing 77 percent of the ABC soup of wealth transfer, or $3.7 trillion at its height. In addition to the facilities, the Fed, in tandem with the New York Fed, made available $3.2 trillion in direct and indirect loans and guarantees, market interventions, and international liquidity swaps to bolster the financial system.
9) He doesn’t understand what risk is. In his pre-emptive Washington Post op-ed, he wrote: “The government’s actions to avoid financial collapse last fall—as distasteful and unfair as some undoubtedly were—were unfortunately necessary to prevent a global economic catastrophe that could have rivaled the Great Depression in length and severity.”
But he seems oblivious to the fact that as a result of those actions, trading profits for the top five banks have risen from a loss of $608 million for 2008 to $119 billion for annualized 2009 (compared to $62 billion for 2007) a year after the seismic bailout operation. That’s not a red flag for him? Not any indication of a growing bubble? This is the guy we’re now supposed to trust?
Plus, he is blissfully unaware of new bubbles, even though he is the chief bank regulator in the country. Last month, the Fed announced that the policy stance of maintaining low interest rates for a long period has a “relatively low” likelihood of encouraging “excessive risk-taking.” So much for learning from history.
Bernanke supporters may want to check back in a few years to determine just how smart a move it was to shovel bucket loads of public and newly minted money into the eager mouths of an unreformed, unrepentant banking system that voraciously swallowed it up to dump into trading operations that ooze increased risk and near miraculous profits. Think things won’t combust again? Good luck with that.
10) He’s taken credit for a job well done, while orchestrating the next crisis. In his op-ed, he wrote: “The Fed played a major part in arresting the crisis, and we should be seeking to preserve, not degrade, the institution’s ability to foster financial stability and to promote economic recovery without inflation.”
Arresting the crisis? How about he held open the doors to the vault, while the bankers stole the public’s money? And he’s missing the full-swing risk-for-profit bubble developing now. When is he going to play a major part in doing something about that—during the next crisis?
A confirmation of Bernanke would affirm that the Fed can do whatever it wants, no matter what the cost, as long as we live under the ethos that making bad decisions is better than making worse ones. So would a Senate confirmation on Thursday.
Proactivity is not Bernanke’s, or the Fed’s, strong suit: under fire and midcrisis is more its style. With that in mind, he is only the perfect choice to lead the Fed if you’re looking for someone who is completely useless at avoiding disaster but really great at spending money (on nothing) and keeping secrets to fix it.
Nomi Prins is author of It Takes a Pillage: Behind the Bonuses, Bailouts, and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street (Wiley, September, 2009). Before becoming a journalist, she worked on Wall Street as a managing director at Goldman Sachs, and running the international analytics group at Bear Stearns in London.