Will he repeat the mistakes of his four years?
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke faces his Senate renomination hearing today, amid signs that the confirmation skids are greased. We nonetheless think someone should say that, as a matter of accountability for the financial crisis and looking at the hard monetary choices to come, the country needs a new Fed chief.
We say this not because of Mr. Bernanke's performance during the financial panic of 2008, for which he has been widely and often deservedly praised. Like others in the regulatory cockpit at the time, he had to make difficult choices with imperfect information and when the markets were shooting with real bullets.
He supplied ample liquidity when it was most needed last autumn, and he has certainly been willing to pull out every last page of the central banker playbook. If some of those decisions were mistakes, the conditions the Fed faced were extraordinary. Anyone at the helm would have made calls that in hindsight he'd regret.
The real problem is Mr. Bernanke's record before the panic, with its troubling implications for a second four years. When George W. Bush nominated the Princeton economist four years ago, we offered the backhanded compliment that at least he'd have to clean up the mess that the Alan Greenspan Fed had made. That mess turned out to be bigger than even we thought, but we also didn't know then how complicit Mr. Bernanke was in Mr. Greenspan's monetary decisions.
Now we do, thanks to the release of the Federal Open Market Committee transcripts from 2003. They show (see "Bernanke at the Creation," June 23, 2009) that Mr. Bernanke was the intellectual architect of the decision to keep monetary policy exceptionally easy for far too long as the economy grew rapidly from 2003-2005. He imagined a "deflation" that never occurred, ignored the asset bubbles in commodities and housing, dismissed concerns about dollar weakness, and in the process stoked the credit mania that led to the financial panic.
This, too, might be forgivable if Mr. Bernanke had made any attempt in recent months to acknowledge the Fed's role in the mania. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher and others have conceded that monetary policy was too loose. How central banks can minimize, if not prevent, asset bubbles without inducing recessions would seem to be a subject for candid Fed debate.
But Mr. Bernanke and Vice Chairman Don Kohn have formed an intellectual moat around the Fed, blaming the credit bubble on the "global savings glut" that they themselves helped to create. They are the Edith Piafs of central banking, regretting nothing.
All of this bears directly on how the Fed will operate over the next four years. We are now in another period of extraordinary monetary ease. Mr. Bernanke is assuring the world that, this time, he knows how and when to start removing this stimulus, even as he also promises that the Fed will remain easy for months to come. The guideposts the Fed claims to follow on policy—the jobless rate, "resource utilization"—also remain the same. Price signals, especially the value of the dollar, count for much less in this Fed's decision-making.
Earlier this decade, the Fed had 20 years of sound-money history as a source of credibility. The world's investors were willing to give the Greenspan Fed the benefit of the doubt—too much doubt as it turned out. But now, after the mania and panic, investors are unlikely to show such forbearance. That's already clear in Asia, where the falling dollar is creating monetary distortions, and investors are bidding up assets and currencies on a bet that the dollar is in for further declines. Sooner rather than later, Mr. Bernanke will have to tighten money even if the U.S. jobless rate remains higher than everyone would like.
The Fed chairman has shown he knows how to ease money, and creatively so. But that is the easy part of his job. The hard part, the time when central bankers earn their fame, is when they have to take the money away. We see little in the chairman's policy history or guideposts to suggest he will be willing to endure the criticism that will come with tightening money amid a lackluster recovery, if that is what is required to protect the dollar or prevent an inflation outbreak.
The political irony today is that even as Mr. Bernanke is cruising toward confirmation, the Fed as an institution is under its most sustained political attack in two generations. The political class is especially riled about the Fed's forays into fiscal policy. While that is understandable given the last year, the response to this action should not be to put the Fed under even greater political control from Congress. That is the Argentinian solution.
The better response is to hold policy makers accountable for their actions, including chairmen of the Federal Reserve. At this monetary moment more than any since the late 1970s, the Fed needs a hard-money chairman with the courage and credibility to resist the temptation to escape from the consequences of the last bubble by floating another one.