FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Bernanke and the Corruption of Washington Culture

The Senate Banking 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.

This column was originally published by The Guardian.

 

More articles by:

Dean Baker is the senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. 

January 22, 2019
Patrick Cockburn
On the Brink of Brexit: the Only Thing Most People Outside Westminster Know About Brexit is That It’s a Mess
Raouf Halaby
The Little Brett Kavanaughs from Covington Catholic High
Dean Baker
The Trump Tax Cut is Even Worse Than They Say
Stanley L. Cohen
The Brazen Detention of Marzieh Hashemi, America’s Newest Political Prisoner
Karl Grossman
Darth Trump: From Space Force to Star Wars
Glenn Sacks
Teachers Strike Dispatch #8: New Independent Study Confirms LAUSD Has the Money to Meet UTLA’s Demands
Haydar Khan
The Double Bind of Human Senescence
Alvaro Huerta
Mr. President, We Don’t Need Your Stinking Wall
Howard Lisnoff
Another Slugger from Louisville: Muhammad Ali
Nicole Patrice Hill – Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
The Scarlet “I”: Climate Change, “Invasive” Plants and Our Culture of Domination
Jonah Raskin
Disposable Man Gets His Balls Back
Thomas Knapp
Now More Than Ever, It’s Clear the FBI Must Go
January 21, 2019
W. T. Whitney
New US Economic Attack Against Cuba, Long Threatened, May Hit Soon
Jérôme Duval
Macronist Repression Against the People in Yellow Vests
Dean Baker
The Next Recession: What It Could Look Like
Eric Mann
All Hail the Revolutionary King: Martin Luther King and the Black Revolutionary Tradition
Binoy Kampmark
Spy Theories and the White House: Donald Trump as Russian Agent
Edward Curtin
We Need a Martin Luther King Day of Truth
Bill Fried
Jeff Sessions and the Federalists
Ed Corcoran
Central America Needs a Marshall Plan
Colin Todhunter
Complaint Lodged with European Ombudsman: Regulatory Authorities Colluding with Agrochemicals Industry
Manuel E. Yepe
The US War Against the Weak
Weekend Edition
January 18, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Melvin Goodman
Star Wars Revisited: One More Nightmare From Trump
John Davis
“Weather Terrorism:” a National Emergency
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Sometimes an Establishment Hack is Just What You Need
Joshua Frank
Montana Public Schools Block Pro-LGBTQ Websites
Louisa Willcox
Sky Bears, Earth Bears: Finding and Losing True North
Robert Fisk
Bernie Sanders, Israel and the Middle East
Robert Fantina
Pompeo, the U.S. and Iran
David Rosen
The Biden Band-Aid: Will Democrats Contain the Insurgency?
Nick Pemberton
Human Trafficking Should Be Illegal
Steve Early - Suzanne Gordon
Did Donald Get The Memo? Trump’s VA Secretary Denounces ‘Veteran as Victim’ Stereotyping
Andrew Levine
The Tulsi Gabbard Factor
John W. Whitehead
The Danger Within: Border Patrol is Turning America into a Constitution-Free Zone
Dana E. Abizaid
Kafka’s Grave: a Pilgrimage in Prague
Rebecca Lee
Punishment Through Humiliation: Justice For Sexual Assault Survivors
Dahr Jamail
A Planet in Crisis: The Heat’s On Us
John Feffer
Trump Punts on Syria: The Forever War is Far From Over
Dave Lindorff
Shut Down the War Machine!
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: Student Voices of the Los Angeles Education Revolt  
Mark Ashwill
The Metamorphosis of International Students Into Honorary US Nationalists: a View from Viet Nam
Ramzy Baroud
The Moral Travesty of Israel Seeking Arab, Iranian Money for its Alleged Nakba
Ron Jacobs
Allen Ginsberg Takes a Trip
Jake Johnston
Haiti by the Numbers
Binoy Kampmark
No-Confidence Survivor: Theresa May and Brexit
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail