February 7th 2010
Bernanke and the Dollar…Part Two
In December, I posted about Ben Bernanke (Bernanke’s Background and Near-Term US Monetary Policy), specifically about how a basic understanding of Bernanke’s academic background and philosophical approach to monetary policy could be useful for predicting the general direction of interest rates, irrespective of prevailing economic conditions. This post, is somewhere between a follow-up and a step back.
By this, I mean that when I last wrote about Bernanke, it was already a foregone conclusion that Bernanke would be approved for a second term as Chairman of the Fed. While his confirmation is still pretty much a given (despite the requisite speechifying by a small but vocal opposition), the fact that it has been so bumpy has caused all of us talking heads to seek higher ground and look afresh at the situation. My intention here, however, is not to look at other potential candidates for Bernanke’s position, as such would be a complete waste of time at this point. Nor do I want to discuss the implications of Bernanke’s eventual confirmation, as I have already done that. Rather, I want to discuss the implications of the delay/complications in his being approved. You would think that there wouldn’t be enough meat here for a substantive analysis, but you would be wrong.
That the confirmation process has been anything but smooth tells us much about both public attitudes towards Bernanke and about the attitudes towards the Fed. With regard to Bernanke, there is now a strong amount of criticism being leveled against him – for fomenting the housing bubble via low rates, lowering rates too quickly, not injecting enough new money into the financial markets. That such criticism is often contradictory is not important. What is important, is that such criticism is increasingly being taken seriously by Bernanke et al, such that the Fed is gradually losing its position as an independent stabilizing force and is instead becoming a highly politicized organization, that may soon be subject to the same checks and balances as other branches of government.
Of course, many commentators (and not a small number of politicians, as evidenced by the progress of Ron Paul’s ‘Audit the Fed’ bill), couldn’t be happier with this turn of events. They argue that the Fed has too much power, and for too long has been able to successfully operate in a public gray area with the power of a government institution but the freedom of a private one. Bernanke – and supporters of the status quo – argue that the Fed needs to be independent so that it can continue to shape monetary policy in line with certain economic objectives, rather than the whims of political parties and competing ideologies.
Many of you are probably indifferent to this issue. But consider that the outcome of this battle (whether the Fed remains independent, or its decisions will become subject to Congressional scrutiny) – of which Bernanke’s confirmation is part of – carries potentially serious implications for currency markets. It is arguable that the Dollar’s safe haven perception at the onset of the credit crisis stemmed in part from actions that the Fed took to stabilize currency markets, in the form of swap lines and liquidity injections. If such decisions could be vetoed by the government, suffice it to say that investors would begin to question whether the Dollar was really the king of currencies that it purports to see.
On the one hand, accountability in any organization is important. On the other hand, skepticism towards the government is currently near an all-time high, and I would venture to guess that most of you wouldn’t want to see the role of auditor filled by the government. While criticism towards the Fed is justified, turning it into a political institution probably isn’t the solution. Abolishing it all together, on the other hand, well, that’s a different story altogether…