Ben Bernanke: Too Big to Fail

Key Points

  • I shared the stage at Schwab’s IMPACT conference recently with former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke (a goose-bumpy experience).
  • He was remarkably funny; but also firm in his views about the merits of the Fed’s extraordinary efforts to stem the tide of the financial crisis.
  • Notably, he strongly pushed back on the notion that QE is an inflation accident waiting to happen.

If you were to sample any number of folks about the most funny of men, you would likely hear answers like Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy or Jim Carrey. I doubt you’d get a single  “Ben Bernanke.“ But he surprised a packed house of over 4,000 at Schwab’s IMPACT conference in Denver this month with his humility and humor.

I had the great honor of sharing the stage at IMPACT with Former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke in Denver about 10 days ago. This was the fourth time at IMPACT that I’ve had the pleasure of having an on-stage  “conversation“ with remarkable men and women from the annals of politics and policy, including former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan, Former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and former Senator Olympia Snowe.

Dr. Bernanke is putting the finishing touches on a book chronicling the financial crisis and set to be released in March of next year. He shared many of the most trying of times during the crisis

Your dad is … ?

But in his opening 10 minutes of remarks before I joined him on stage, he took the opportunity to surprise the crowd with the first of what were many hysterical quips. His introduction included the obvious mention of the fact that he’s become highly recognizable. But he recounted the early couple of days of his daughter’s freshman year in college. When her roommate asked her what her father did for a living, she replied that he was the Chairman of the Federal Reserve; to which her roommate replied,  “Your dad is Alan Greenspan?!“ He went on to note that it’s still the case that 12% of the public believes Greenspan is still running the Fed!

Ben, please explain

But of course, it wasn’t all laughter. Dr. Bernanke spent much of our time together recounting the heady days of the financial crisis; with an emphasis on AIG, Lehman and the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). He recalled a meeting he and Secretary Paulson had with members of Congress during which the bailout of AIG was discussed:  “Paulson and I met with 20 leaders of the House and Senate. Paulson said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we’re about to make an $85 billion loan to AIG … Ben, please explain.’“ This, too, generated much laughter (of course I’m talking about the laughter at IMPACT six years later; not during that fateful meeting).

As for Lehman Brothers, Bernanke views the weekend of its demise the critical turning point in the financial crisis.  “My view was that it was essentially a panic;“ an institutional panic, wholesale panic, causing  “the cost of bank funding [to shoot] through the roof in December 2008.“ The turning point came when Congress ultimately passed TARP, which ultimately helped stabilize the financial system; however unpopular it was at its outset. He had another now-funny quip when he recounted one Senator’s assessment of voter sentiment about TARP, which  “was running about 50-50: 50% said ‘no’ and the other 50% said ‘hell no.’ “

But TARP did give the Fed the tools it needed to tackle the crisis; including quantitative easing (QE) as an addendum to having taken short-term interest rates to zero following Lehman’s collapse.

I asked Dr. Bernanke about his  “worst-case scenario fears“ during the peak of the crisis and whether what ultimately happened was better or worse. With the benefit of hindsight, he said the failure of Lehman and its ripple effects, did not match his worst-case scenario; which would have brought the failure of many more institutions.

Today, he analyzes crises from the private sector sidelines. He got another roar of laughter when he quipped,  “Now I read the newspaper and say, ‘gee, that’s a serious problem; I hope somebody does something about it.’“

QE: practice vs. theory

I also probed about QE and specifically asked him about a funny comment he made earlier this year at another speaking engagement. He noted that,  “the problem with QE is it works in practice, but it doesn’t work in theory.“ He continues to make a strong defense of QE and uses the less economically secure conditions in the eurozone—which hasn’t implemented US-style QE—as testament to his case.

I asked him a bit more about the European Central Bank (ECB) and their efforts to-date. He believes the ECB will have a rough time implementing US-style QE. The ECB faces  “barriers to doing it [that] are not really economic. The legal and political barriers being thrown up are going to make it very difficult to do that.“

He also fought back against those who have railed at the supposed-inflation implications of a now-$4.5 trillion Fed balance sheet courtesy of three rounds of QE. He recalled thinking, “we were never concerned about [inflation]; that was just bad economics; inflation was never a risk and is not a risk now…inflation is non-existent and we’re adding 200,000 jobs a month to the economy.  Four years later there’s not a sign of inflation. The dollar is strengthening. They’re saying, ‘Wait another five years, it’s going to happen.’ It’s not going to happen.“

But he was sympathetic to the concern, about which I asked him, that QE ultimately suffered from the law of diminishing returns:  “The first round in 2009 was probably the most powerful but you come to a point where it’s harder to bring yields down; it’s harder on the signaling side to show you’re going to keep rates low.“

Clooney vs. Giamatti

When we got to audience Q&A, he was asked what he thought about the movie  “Too Big to Fail;“ the film adaptation of the book written by my friend and CNBC Squawk Box anchor, Andrew Ross Sorkin. His response:  “I didn’t see the movie. I saw the original.“ He also expressed some frustration that his choice to play him—George Clooney—was not available, so the part went to Paul Giamatti (who received a Golden Globe for the portrayal).

I wrapped things up with a few more questions of my own; including what advice he and other former Fed chairs have given to their successors. Bernanke remembered the sage advice from Greenspan:  “When you sit at this table, always sit where you can see the clock so you know when the meeting’s over. “

End "prohibition"

Dr. Bernanke recounted a different ritual when he became the head of the Council of Economic Advisors under President George W. Bush (who was also a speaker at IMPACT this year), which was the job he held before he took over the Fed. The new chair gets presented a sign that says, “In case of emergency, open the bottom drawer. When you opened the bottom drawer, there was a bottle of scotch.“

I took that as an opportunity to ask whether he agreed with the view expressed by many (including yours truly) that politicians need to return to the days when liquor flowed more freely and there were more collegial relationships in Washington. His reply?  “It couldn’t hurt.“

Legacy … and drinking

I asked Dr. Bernanke about his legacy. He exudes a sense of pride around the steps the Fed took during the financial crisis, as well as its increased transparency; which has included press conferences following Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meetings, public appearances by the Fed Chair and other FOMC members, and providing to the public the minutes of FOMC meetings. In particular, he lauded the fact that the Fed is now  “structured to address financial stability issues; financial stability is now an equal partner with monetary policy.“

He also responded to my question about how he has been received over the years:  “On the whole, people have been very nice. It was a very hard time; I’m sure that we didn’t do everything right. There was a lot of anger; a lot of people upset about the economy with good reason. But people have been very supportive. I’m very appreciative of that.“

The audience was certainly supportive and appreciative.

© Charles Schwab

© Charles Schwab

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