Five questions for Ben Bernanke

The Senate is likely to confirm him, but not without asking things like 'How soon will you raise interest rates?'

Stephan Savoia/ AP
President Barack Obama looks on after announcing he is keeping Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke (l.) for a second term, Tuesday, during a news conference in Oak Bluffs, Mass.

It’s likely that Ben Bernanke will win Senate approval for a second term as chairman of the US Federal Reserve. Even his critics admit that. Financial markets might swoon if they thought their mild-mannered hero – who arguably helped stave off a depression last fall – was about to get the boot.

But that doesn’t mean he won’t get asked some hard questions at his confirmation hearing. The Fed’s semi-autonomous role in American economic life is always a matter of deep interest on Capitol Hill. Plus, Senators are sure to want to question him about the legality, depth, and wisdom of everything from the federal government’s bank bailout to its investments in GM and Chrysler.

So, yes, the Fed chief passed one test by winning President Obama’s nod for renomination. The second test awaits.

“Bernanke still faces potentially tough confirmation hearings in the Senate,” said Brian Bethune, chief US economist of IHS Global Insight, on Tuesday.

Here are five topics that Senators are likely to touch upon:

WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO TAKE AWAY THE PUNCHBOWL? Since financial markets turned shaky last year, the Fed has pumped massive amounts of liquidity -- i.e., cash -- into the economy, via such efforts as the bank bailouts (otherwise known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program), backing of securitized consumer loans, and continued aggressive reduction of interest rates. It’s been an unprecedented infusion that helped keep world commerce going. But at some point, it has to end.

Legendary Fed chief William McChesney Martin once said that the job of his institution was “to take away the punchbowl just as the party gets going” -- in other words, to raise interest rates when recovery begins.

Some Senators worry that Bernanke will take away the punchbowl too early, before recovery really sets in. Others worry he will do it too late, allowing inflation to start gaining power.

HOW MUCH OF ALL THIS WAS YOUR FAULT? Bernanke succeeded Alan Greenspan in February, 2006. Like Greenspan, Bernanke did little to curb the asset bubbles, notably rising real estate prices, that are now thought to have helped lead to last year’s crisis.

Sure, Bernanke moved very aggressively to exert government power and use all the tools at his disposal once the crisis began. Wouldn’t a little nudge in 2007 have prevented all those late nights with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson in 2008?

WHAT DID YOU DO TO KEN LEWIS? Last September, as the financial crisis accelerated, Ken Lewis, CEO of Bank of America, bought a troubled Merrill Lynch for $50 billion in stock. Since then, that deal has looked worse and worse, as Merrill Lynch losses have become more and more apparent.

Since then, Lewis has testified that he did not back out of the deal in part because Bernanke and Henry Paulson did not want him to, as they feared the resultant bankruptcy of Merrill Lynch would endanger the whole economy. He says the powerful officials told him they would remove him and Bank of America’s entire board unless he went ahead with the Merrill Lynch deal.

Bernanke has denied making that specific threat. But what did he tell Lewis before the deal went through?

WHY SHOULD WE GIVE YOU MORE POWER? Bernanke’s renomination comes at time when the powers of the institution he heads may be in flux. The Obama administration’s proposed financial regulatory reforms would, among other things, give the Fed more authority to oversee systemically important institutions. Just like Merrill Lynch and Bank of America.

But not all lawmakers are convinced this is a good idea, given the Fed’s past regulatory actions, and its independence. A council of regulators might be a better option, they feel.

WHERE ARE THE JOBS? Finally, Senators may be grateful for Bernanke’s actions in the economy’s dark hours. They may be happy that a recovery may be appearing to take root. But GDP numbers, housing sales, retail figures -- those are all numbers. When are the jobs going to come back?

The Obama administration’s mid-year budget review predicts that unemployment will continue to rise, to over 10 percent, and that job losses will not end and job gains begin until the middle of 2010.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent of Vermont, is one of the few open opponents of a second term for Bernanke.

“As the middle class of this country continues to shrink, we need a chairman of the Federal Reserve who is more concerned about expanding the productive economy -- increasing decent-paying jobs for all Americans -- then continuing to fan the flames of Wall Street greed and outrageous compensation packages,” said Sanders in a statement on Tuesday.


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