Review of Ben Bernanke "The Courage to Act"

The Courage to Act: A Memoir of a Crisis and Its AftermathThe Courage to Act: A Memoir of a Crisis and Its Aftermath by Ben S. Bernanke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fairly dry, but very important book by the man at the helm of the Fed during the “great recession.” Bernanke does not give us a book where shots are delivered to those who may be have been policy opponents within government, but he does manage to get his points across diplomatically. As the financial system teetered many complex and politically difficult decisions were thrust upon Washington policy makers from both the Bush and Obama Administrations. Those decisions are still debated today. Bernanke gives us his view on those decisions, and the facts on the ground that may have led, in certain instances, to decisions that were sub-optimum, or just plain wrong.

Bernanke gets to some of the big decisions of the day, including the decision to let Lehman fail. The entire “bailout” of Wall Street issue is gone over, with Bernanke giving, as much as can be expected, a dispassionate analysis of why decisions were made, and what the ramifications might have been had alternative policies been adopted. Not being an economist I looked for his views on several issues that remain controversial to this day, including Lehman, the bailouts, especially the AIG bailout, the right “medicine” for an economy in a major recession.

As mentioned Bernanke is diplomatic, except when it comes to the disdain he shows for the Washington political class from both Parties. The “play-acting” in the middle of a crisis, the politics first mentality of a large segment of the elected officials he had to deal with, and the flat out lack of shame or truth by these elected officials is called out by Bernanke. He defends the bailouts as necessary, but recognizes the “moral hazard” inherent in those decisions.

“Some of the critics were ideologues (the free market is always right) or uninformed (the economy will be just fine if a few Wall Street firms get their just deserts). Some simply railed against the unfairness of bailing out Wall Street giants but not the little guy on Main Street. Personally, I felt considerable sympathy for this last argument. (I would wince every time I saw a bumper sticker reading “Where’s my bailout?”) But it was in everyone’s interest, whether or not they realized it, to protect the economy from the consequences of a catastrophic failure of the financial system. The opponents’ most substantive argument was that, whatever the short-run benefits of bailouts, protecting firms from the consequences of their own risky behavior would lead to riskier behavior in the longer run. I certainly agreed that, in a capitalist system, the market must be allowed to discipline individuals or firms that make bad decisions. Frank Borman, the former astronaut who became CEO of Eastern Airlines (which went bankrupt), put it nicely a quarter-century earlier: “Capitalism without bankruptcy is like Christianity without hell.” But in September 2008 I was absolutely convinced that invoking moral hazard in the middle of a major financial crisis was misguided and dangerous. I am sure that Paulson and Geithner agreed. “
“You have a neighbor, who smokes in bed. . . . Suppose he sets fire to his house,” I would say later in an interview. “You might say to yourself . . . ‘I’m not gonna call the fire department. Let his house burn down. It’s fine with me.’ But then, of course, what if your house is made of wood? And it’s right next door to his house? What if the whole town is made of wood?” The editorial writers of the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal in September 2008 would, presumably, have argued for letting the fire burn. Saving the sleepy smoker would only encourage others to smoke in bed. But a much better course is to put out the fire, then punish the smoker, and, if necessary, make and enforce new rules to promote fire safety. The firefighting argument applied equally well to Lehman

Bernanke, Ben S. (2015-10-05). The Courage to Act: A Memoir of a Crisis and Its Aftermath (Kindle Locations 3874-3880). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Despite the ferocious nature of the debate, nobody, in my view, has been able to puncture this argument.

His disdain for Congress comes through clearly, in several instances:Bernanke here gives a backhanded slap, but focuses on some who would prefer to let the fire rage unabated, with the desire to let the “market” handle it all, with bad players being punished, along with everyone else, for their poor actions.

“Tim, in particular, complained about the “Old Testament” attitude of politicians who seemed more interested in inflicting punishment than in avoiding impending disaster. We were fine with bad actors getting their just deserts, but we believed it was better to postpone the verdict on blame and guilt until the fire was out. I had also over the years seen a great deal of feigned outrage in Washington, and I didn’t feel like playing that game.”

That “Old Testament” attitude keeps coming through again and again, and still manifests itself every time there is a debt crisis. We heard it loud and clear during the Greek debt crisis, when the desire to ‘punish” the Greeks for poor fiscal practices outweighed the practical steps needed to solve the problem.

Bernanke does deal with the outrageous demands for austerity in the face of a precipitous drop in demand, and like most folks with a modicum of common sense he calls out those folks who have been proven wrong from the get go. What were they wrong about? The predictions of:
Currency debasement
Runaway inflation
Austerity being the right “medicine” in the face of a massive recession.

Although Bernanke is a Republican, appointed by a Republican President, he takes on the “know nothing” wing of the Party with gusto. His comments even drew a rebuke from Rand Paul during one of the 2015 GOP debates. What did he say?

“These and a few other exceptions notwithstanding, the increasing hostility of Republicans to the Fed and to me personally troubled me, particularly since I had been appointed by a Republican president who had supported our actions during the crisis. I tried to listen carefully and accept thoughtful criticisms. But it seemed to me that the crisis had helped to radicalize large parts of the Republican Party. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York once said that everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts. Some Republicans, particularly on the far right, increasingly did not draw the distinction. They blamed the crisis on the Fed and on Fannie and Freddie, with little regard for the manifest failings of the private sector, other regulators, or, most especially, of Congress itself. They condemned bailouts as giveaways of taxpayer money without considering the broader economic consequences of the collapse of systemically important firms. They saw inflation where it did not exist and, when the official data did not bear out their predictions, invoked conspiracy theories. They denied that monetary or fiscal policy could support job growth, while still working to direct federal spending to their own districts. They advocated discredited monetary systems, like the gold standard. For me, these positions pushed the party further away from the mainstream and from traditional Republican views. I still considered myself a conservative. I believed in the importance of personal autonomy and responsibility and agreed that market economies were best for generating economic growth and improving economic welfare. But I had lost patience with Republicans’ susceptibility to the know-nothing-ism of the far right. I didn’t leave the Republican Party. I felt that the party left me.”

Important critiques which continue to be borne out. Wrong about inflation? Claim the books are cooked. Conspiracy theories abound from those who have made error, but refuse to admit they were wrong. Easier to cite wild conspiracy theories.

Bernanke also weighs in on QE1 and QE2, and takes on those who criticized the Fed for the easing. Looking back on the program gives us today a clear picture of whether the Fed made the right mov
es, or whether the critics were right. From my perspective Bernanke comes out with the better of the argument, as the doom predicted by the critics just failed to materialize. An open letter to the Fed, signed by a group of conservative economists in 2010, said….”The planned asset purchases risk currency debasement and inflation, and we do not think they will achieve the Fed’s objective of promoting employment.” Wrong again. Bernanke took them on directly:

“The economic logic underlying all three—the cartoon, the letter from the congressional Republicans, and the economists’ missive—was misguided and inaccurate. In particular, there was virtually zero risk that our policies would lead to significant inflation or “currency debasement” (a loaded term for a sharp decline in the value of the dollar). That idea was linked to a perception that the Fed paid for securities by printing wheelbarrows of money. But contrary to what is sometimes said (and I said it once or twice myself, unfortunately, in oversimplified explanations), our policies did not involve printing money—neither literally, when referring to cash, nor even metaphorically, when referring to other forms of money such as checking accounts. The amount of currency in circulation is determined by how much cash people want to hold (the demand goes up around Christmas shopping time, for example) and is not affected by the Fed’s securities purchases. Instead, the Fed pays for securities by creating reserves in the banking system. In a weak economy, like the one we were experiencing, those reserves simply lie fallow and they don’t serve as “money” in the common sense of the word.”

“If growth in money and credit became excessive, it would eventually result in inflation, but we could avoid that by unwinding our easy-money policies at the appropriate time. And, as I had explained on many occasions, we had the tools we needed to raise rates and tighten monetary policy when needed. The fears of hyperinflation or a collapse of the dollar were consequently quite exaggerated. Market indicators of inflation expectations—including the fact that the U.S. government was able to borrow long-term at very low interest rates—showed that investors had great confidence in the Fed’s ability to keep inflation low. Our concern, if anything, was to get inflation a little higher, which was proving difficult to accomplish.”

Bernanke remains a conservative, but shows that the “know-nothing” wing of the GOP could have done some real damage had their policies been enacted. Bernanke took some slings and arrows from the left, and criticizes Krugman specifically for some unfair criticism. But he is a student of Keynes, and of the Great Depression, where Hooverism and the fear of inflation had such a damaging impact on our ability to recover from disaster.

“As new (and old) Keynesians would predict, collapsing private demand—consumer spending, home purchases, capital investment—had sent production and employment reeling. As Keynes had first suggested in the 1930s, in an economic slump public spending could replace private spending for a time. With the economy still in free fall and with short-term interest rates already near zero, the economy certainly needed fiscal help—increased government spending, tax cuts to promote private spending, or both. I had said so (albeit in my usual cautious central bank speak) during the fall, to the point that the Wall Street Journal editorialized that I had effectively endorsed Obama for president. I wasn’t endorsing a candidate, I was endorsing a program, just as I had supported President Bush’s fiscal stimulus (in the form of tax cuts) that had passed in early 2008. On February 17, less than a month after his inauguration, Obama signed a major fiscal package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.”

Bernanke has written a fine book that is balanced, thoughtful, and will give readers, trained in economics or not, a valuable historical perspective on the actions undertaken by the Federal Reserve in response to the Great Recession. It is well worth a read.

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