Bernanke and the Corruption of Washington Culture

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Dean Baker
The Guardian Unlimited, December 21, 2009

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The Senate Finance Committee overwhelmingly voted to approve Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke for another 4-year term. This is a remarkable event since it is hard to imagine how Bernanke could have performed worse in his last 4-year term. By Bernanke’s own assessment, his policies brought the economy to the brink of another Great Depression. This sort of performance in any other job would get you fired in a second, but for the most important economic policymaker in the country it gets you high praise and another 4-year term.

There is no room for ambiguity in this story. Bernanke was at the Fed since the fall of 2002. (He had a brief stint in 2005 as chair of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors.)  At a point when at least some economists recognized the housing bubble and began to warn of the damage that would result from its collapse, Bernanke insisted that everything was fine and that nothing should be done to rein in the bubble. 

This is worth repeating. If Bernanke knew what he was doing, he should have been able to see as early as 2002 that there was a housing bubble and that its collapse would throw the economy into a recession. It was also entirely predictable that the collapse could lead to a financial crisis of the type we saw, since housing was always a highly leveraged asset, even before the flood of subprime, Alt-A and other nonsense loans that propelled the bubble to ever greater heights. Of course as the bubble expanded, and the financial sector became ever more highly leveraged, the risks to the economy increased enormously.

Through this all, Bernanke just looked the other way. The whole time he insisted that everything was just fine.

To be clear, there was plenty that the Fed could have done to deflate the bubble before it grew to such dangerous proportions. First and foremost the Fed could have used its extensive research capabilities to carefully document the evidence for a housing bubble and the risks that its collapse would pose to the economy.

It then should have used the enormous megaphone of the Fed chairman and the platform of the institution to publicize this research widely. The Fed could have ensured that every loan officer who issued a mortgage, as well as all the banks officers who set policy, clearly heard the warnings of a bubble in the housing market, backed up by reams of irrefutable research. The same warnings would have reached the ears of every potential homebuyer in the country. It’s hard to believe that such warnings would have had no impact on the bubble, but it’s near criminal that the Fed never tried this route.

The second tool that the Fed could have pursued was to crack down on the fraudulent loans that were being issued in massive numbers at the peak of the bubble. It is absurd to claim that the Fed didn’t know about the abuses in the mortgage market. I was getting e-mails from all over the country telling me about loan officers filling in phony income and asset numbers so that borrowers would qualify for mortgages. If the Bernanke and his Fed colleagues did not know about these widespread abuses, it is because they deliberately avoided knowing.

Finally, the Fed could have had a policy of interest rate hikes explicitly targeted to burst the bubble. Specifically, it could have announced that it will raise rates by half a point at every meeting, until house prices begin to fall and it will keep rates high until house prices approach their pre-bubble level.

This is what a responsible Fed policy would have looked like. But Ben Bernanke did not pursue a responsible Fed policy. He insisted that everything was just fine until he had to run to Congress last September, saying that if it didn’t immediately give $700 billion to the banks through the TARP program then the economy would collapse.

How on earth can you do worse in your job as Fed chair then bring the economy to the brink of a total collapse? If this is success, what does failure look like?

But, in Washington no one is ever held accountable for their performance. The economic collapse is treated like a fluke of nature – a hurricane or an earthquake – not the result of enormous policy failures.

So, it is the 15 million unemployed that go without work, not Ben Bernanke. Instead, the senators praise Bernanke to the sky and thank him for his service. The running line in the Senate is: “it could have been worse.”

That is the way Washington works these days. And, everyone should be very very disgusted.

Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy. He also has a blog on the American Prospect, "Beat the Press," where he discusses the media's coverage of economic issues.