Bernanke confirmed for second term as Fed chairman

The Senate voted to confirm Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve today, but it was hardly a ringing endorsement:

The 70 to 30 vote was the thinnest approval ever extended to a chairman in the central bank’s 96-year history.

The confirmation was a victory for President Obama, who had called Mr. Bernanke an architect of the recovery, but also signaled the extent to which the Fed, once little known to the public, has become the object of populist outrage over high unemployment and Wall Street bailouts.

In several hours of debate, senators said the Fed had abetted, then ignored, the housing and credit bubbles and allowed banks to keep dangerously low capital reserves and to make reckless lending decisions that ruined consumers. Some even blamed Mr. Bernanke for the falling dollar and questioned his commitment to free enterprise.

In contrast, Mr. Bernanke’s supporters were muted. Like a mantra, they said that the Fed had made mistakes but that Mr. Bernanke had helped save the economy from a far worse recession.

Eleven Democrats, 18 Republicans and independent Bernie Sanders voted against confirming Bernanke (roll call here).

Senators of both parties who opposed Bernanke said his monetary policy and poor oversight contributed to the financial meltdown of 2008. Various Democrats who voted against Bernanke said he had been too beholden to Wall Street interests. Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa surprised me this week by claiming Bernanke wasn't doing enough to prevent high inflation from returning. I would think that in this economic environment, with high unemployment and declining wages, deflation would be more of a concern than high inflation.

I still think it was a mistake for Obama to nominate Bernanke for another term, but let's hope the Fed chairman improves on the job.

UPDATE: MIT economist Simon Johnson considers Bernanke's reappointment and confirmation "a colossal failure of governance. Worth a read.

SECOND UPDATE: I should have mentioned that seven senators voted for cloture (allowing the Senate to proceed to consider Bernanke's nomination) before voting against confirming him. Here is the roll call on the cloture vote. The senators who voted for cloture but against Bernanke are Democrats Tom Harkin (IA), Barbara Boxer (CA), Byron Dorgan (ND), Al Franken (MN), Ted Kaufman (DE), and Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), along with Republican George LeMieux (FL).

2010 & a pro-Bernanke Democratic Party

The Senate Banking Committee vote approving Bernanke was 16-7, with only Senator Merkley joining the 6 Republicans in voting 'No'. Merkley's vote was both the right one on the facts and strategically smart, but Repubs are now way out ahead of Dems on the faux populist anger front, which will be a very important factor in the mid-term elections.

In a voice vote four years ago, only Senator Jim Bunning, Republican of Kentucky, expressed opposition to Mr. Bernanke's first nomination. This time, five other Republican committee members joined him, while four approved the nomination.

Only one Democrat, Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, opposed the nomination. He said that while Mr. Bernanke had proved "adroit with the fire hose," he also bore some responsibility for having allowed the economic blaze to erupt.

No "no" vote by Sherrod Brown, so he has disqualified himself imho as a possible authentic future progressive Presidential candidate. At present count, btw, there'll be a few more Dem anti-Bernanke votes on the Senate floor.

2010 strategy-wise, the Dems being identified with Bernanke and 'Wall Street Democratic' economic policy is disastrous. Don't believe me then listen to Arianna Huffington, or Massachusetts Rep. Michael Capuano:

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Only ONE Democrat (Merkley (D-OR)) Says No to Bernanke


Unbelievable. Et tu Sherrod Brown? Why would any reality-based person reconfirm such a catastrophically terrible economic manager? I mean, look at that unemployment rate, the flatulent economy, or just read about his and other conventional thinkers' gigantic MISS on the real estate bubble. The whole corrupt financial sector takeover of the political system is responsible for our deep recession, of course, but why shouldn't Bernanke take a fall for his ostrichy lack of foresight? Why shouldn't somebody take a fall for the catastrophically bad economic forecasting, the record-breaking giveaway to incompetent financial institutions? And then there is pwoggieland's utter silence (except for David Sirota and, I guess, Jane Hamsher) and worse (see Dean Baker below on 'liberal' NPR 'reporters' openly ridiculing Senator Jim Bunning, a Republican Senator willing to criticize Bernanke, giving him an F- on his management of and responsibility for the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression). This is why common sense people say there is no left in the U.S., and why we so desperately need one. Here's Merkley:

Tomorrow, I will vote against confirming Ben Bernanke as Chairman of the Federal Reserve. The reason, in short, is that as Chairman, Dr. Bernanke failed to recognize or remedy the factors that paved the road to this dark and difficult recession. Following our economic collapse, it is also apparent that he has not changed his overall approach to prioritizing Wall Street over American families. . . .

Our nation is just beginning to emerge from the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, and there is no guarantee we will continue on the road to recovery over the long or short terms. Unemployment remains far too high, credit is unavailable to too many businesses, and families are plagued by falling home prices and high foreclosure rates. Even as we move forward with our efforts to get our economy back on track, it is critical we carefully examine what led us to this point.

For too many years, federal regulators turned a blind eye to signs of an impending financial crisis. Tricks and traps proliferated in the credit card and consumer lending industries. Predatory mortgage loans exploded, fueling an unsustainable housing bubble. Regulators lifted rules requiring banks to keep adequate capital, and a laissez-faire approach to securitization, derivatives, and proprietary trading encouraged excessive risk-taking on Wall Street. As a member of the Board of Governors, Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, and then ultimately as Chairman of the Board of Governors, Dr. Bernanke supported each of these decisions, failing to take the necessary precautionary steps that could have averted or mitigated financial collapse.

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No joke: Time names Fed Chairman "Person of the Year"

Bleeding Heartland user American007 noted not long ago that Time Magazine often gives its "Person of the Year" award to people attempting to deal with a weak economy. So it was this year, when Time's editors laughably chose Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke:

The story of the year was a weak economy that could have been much, much weaker. Thank the man who runs the Federal Reserve, our mild-mannered economic overlord

I wish I were joking, but here's more from Time:

The overriding story of 2009 was the economy -- the lousiness of it, and the fact that it wasn't far lousier. It was a year of escalating layoffs, bankruptcies and foreclosures, the "new frugality" and the "new normal." It was also a year of green shoots, a rebounding Dow and a fragile sense that the worst is over. Even the big political stories of 2009 -- the struggles of the Democrats; the tea-party takeover of the Republicans; the stimulus; the deficit; GM and Chrysler; the backlash over bailouts and bonuses; the furious debates over health care, energy and financial regulation; the constant drumbeat of jobs, jobs, jobs -- were, at heart, stories about the economy. And it's Bernanke's economy.

In 2009, Bernanke hurled unprecedented amounts of money into the banking system in unprecedented ways, while starting to lay the groundwork for the Fed's eventual return to normality. He helped oversee the financial stress tests that finally calmed the markets, while launching a groundbreaking public relations campaign to demystify the Fed. Now that Obama has decided to keep him in his job, he has become a lightning rod in an intense national debate over the Fed as it approaches its second century.

But the main reason Ben Shalom Bernanke is TIME's Person of the Year for 2009 is that he is the most important player guiding the world's most important economy. His creative leadership helped ensure that 2009 was a period of weak recovery rather than catastrophic depression, and he still wields unrivaled power over our money, our jobs, our savings and our national future. The decisions he has made, and those he has yet to make, will shape the path of our prosperity, the direction of our politics and our relationship to the world.

Reality check: Bernanke has no plan to deal with unemployment, even though the "Federal Reserve Act dictates that one of the founding directives of the Federal Reserve is to 'promote effectively the goals of maximum employment.'"

But Bernanke is wild about cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Hooray for our "mild-mannered economic overlord"!

The Senate Banking Committee votes on Bernanke's renomination tomorrow, and he is expected to pass. However, three senators have said they will put a hold on his renomination when it reaches the floor.

I agree that the current recession could have deepened without the federal stimulus bill, especially if we had imposed the federal spending freeze Republicans wanted. But the stimulus should have been larger and better targeted toward job creation. Bernanke doesn't favor any additional federal stimulus to create jobs. He shouldn't even get another term at the Fed, let alone "Person of the Year."

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Weekly Audit: Four More Years of Bailout Ben

By Zach Carter, TMC MediaWire Blogger

After Ben Bernanke allowed an $8 trillion housing bubble to ravage the global economy and nearly destroy the U.S. financial system, President Barack Obama has decided he deserves another term as Chairman of the Federal Reserve. (The UpTake has video of Obama's announcement here.) As the Fed Chair, Bernanke has more economic power than any other person on the planet. By heading the committee that sets interest rates, he can control the economy's rate of growth or contraction; as head regulator of the largest banks, Bernanke has more influence over the rules of the economic game than anyone else.

Why is the Bernanke reappointment a mistake? Matthew Rothschild of The Progressive turns to Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent democratic socialist from Vermont. Put simply, Bernanke is completely culpable for allowing an economic crisis to foment.

"Like the rest of the Bush administration, he was asleep at the wheel during this period and did nothing to move our financial system onto safer grounds," Sanders said.

Corporate media generally neglects to mention Bernanke's role at the Fed prior to 2008, and instead credits him with stopping a second Great Depression. It's true that the Fed has done everything possible to keep Wall Street from imploding, but Bernanke also repeatedly insisted that the subprime mortgage crisis would be "contained" as late as 2007 and made no plans for a situation that might prove worse than his rosy forecasts.

As William Greider explains for The Nation, it's a bit too soon to celebrate our economic salvation at Bernanke's hands. Small banks are failing at an alarming rate, job losses remain heavy and households are being squeezed by plummeting property values and growing credit card debt.

Greider emphasizes that Bernanke repeatedly bailed out financial giants without demanding anything in return, which bodes poorly for any future economic crisis. Kenneth Lewis remains Bank of America's CEO, even though the company has needed $45 billion in taxpayer funds to date, and high-level Fed officials think Lewis may be guilty of securities fraud. On the one bailout where the Fed did assume ownership of the company and discharge it's top-level management, AIG, the deal was structured to funnel no-strings-attached money to other Wall Street companies. Goldman Sachs raked in $12.9 billion from the arrangement. It's one thing to funnel money to financial firms in the name of economic necessity. It's quite another to allow executives at those companies to be paid like princes and subsidize their shareholders.

As economist James K. Galbraith discusses in a piece for The Washington Monthly, it's not clear if Bernanke and Co. actually saved the economy. Even if the financial system gets back to normal functioning, that stability has been purchased with massive taxpayer support. In order to do just about anything involving finance in the United States, a company now needs a very explicit government seal of approval to convince investors that they're safe to do business with. Just ask Colonial Bank, which failed earlier this summer after being denied bailout funds under the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

But there has been secret support as well. Bernanke's Fed committed over $2 trillion in emergency loans to keep the financial system from collapsing during the crisis, and has refused to tell the public who got the money, and on what terms. We don't know who we saved, or at what the consequences of this massive bank support operation will be. Bernanke always believed that rescuing Wall Street would prevent major damage to the broader economy, but Galbraith questions whether the economy would be stronger if policymakers had focused more on direct aid to workers and homeowners, including an earlier, more robust economic stimulus package.

"Perhaps the right thing would have been less focus on saving banks, and much more on saving jobs, families, and homes."

Writing for In These Times, Roger Bybee profiles a new group called Americans for Financial Reform, which is  pushing for changes on Wall Street and fighting against business-as-usual at the Fed. The bank lobby is probably the most powerful interest group on Capitol Hill. Unfortunately, there hasn't been a strong and consistent voice urging lawmakers to protect the entire economy, rather than the banks. The very structure of the Fed makes it more responsive to Wall Street interests than those of the general public. Private-sector banks like Citigroup and Bank of America are shareholders in each of the Fed's regional branches, while private-sector bank executives sit on the board of directors at each branch. Since the boards get to name the regional presidents, private-sector bank CEOs are given major power to name their own regulators. Regional presidents also rotate through positions on the Fed's monetary policy board, making decisions to set interest rates.

The Fed's institutional structure, and its reliance on mainstream economists overly acquiescent to the financial sector has helped fuel the boom-and-bust bubble economy, as the Real News explains in this video piece.

In addition to the turmoil surrounding the Bernanke appointment, the recent budget deficit projections have been receiving a lot of attention lately. By throwing around a lot of big numbers that end in "trillion," deficit hawks have created the impression of crisis where none exists. The government will have a $1.6 trillion shortfall this year, equal to about 11% of the U.S. economy. That's the highest such number since the U.S. economy started to soar in the years after World War II, high enough to mobilize CNBC pundits to warn of financial apocalypse and a bankrupt U.S. government.

But as Robert Reich notes for Salon, it's not really worth getting too worked up over the current deficit projections. In a recession, countries want to run a deficit: the government needs to fill hole created by the drop-off in private-sector economic activity. If the U.S. doesn't run a big deficit, it will shed millions of additional jobs. And the country is nowhere near losing control of its currency. The federal debt stands at about 54% of our economic output right now, and is projected to reach 68% by 2019. But Reich notes that in 1945, the number was far higher: 120%. This number shrank dramatically over the next few years, not because of draconian cuts to government programs, but because the economy grew so much that the debt burden became less severe. We are nowhere near a crisis with the budget that compares to the current unemployment crisis, so pulling back spending right now doesn't make much sense.

Bernanke has always argued that the Fed chair's only duty is to control inflation. But managing the economy means not only attending to inflation, but making sure the true engine of economic growth--financially secure households--isn't sacrificed to the short-term interests of a few Wall Street elites. Bernanke failed to block that economic predation early in his tenure as Fed Chairman. If Bernanke is going to be with us for another four years, President Obama needs to find other ways to restore our economic balance.

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