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Bernanke in a town-hall meeting, shopping for popularity

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bernankeintownhallmeeting

Last Sunday Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve responded to questions from the public in a town-hall style meeting. For the first time in history an acting Federal Reserve chair stepped into the arena that is usually the prerogative of obligations among elected officials. We truly live in interesting times.

What could have provoked this extraordinary move by the chairman given the daunting unpopularity of cumulative actions taken by the Fed in the last twenty four months? The answer is already given in the question. Ben Bernanke is shopping for popularity in order to better his approval ratings. His term as chairman ends in January 31, 2010, when he is up for reappointment by president Obama.

I can only imagine it must have been scary and embarrassing for the chief to step in front of the very same audience he led down over the course of the last ten years. He certainly did not mean to inflict any harm upon his fellow countrymen, but together with his predecessor Greenspan he helped lay the foundations of a shaky economy based on bubble economics.

Sure he gave birth to many millionaires and even some billionaires, but for most people Greenspan’s and Bernanke’s policies were rather harmful. Certainly one cannot expect any sensational outcome of such meetings with both a preselected audience and preselected questions. Organizers won’t let that happen though the chairman won’t suffer any lasting damages. It would have been nice though to read Bernanke’s mind.

To his defense the chairman admitted that he was disgusted from bailing out giant Wall Street firms like AIG, Bear Stearns or Merrill Lynch and rescuing them from going bankrupt. Though we certainly respect his wish not to reside over a second Great Depression, of course we have to believe him that there were no other options at the time. I might also add we are not yet with absolute certainty out of the woods with regard to another Great one.

Asked about his too-big-to-fail policy he seemed to indicate sympathy for the public’s frustration and promised to make it better in the future. Though his credibility was called into question by reiterating his opposition to an independent outside audit of the Fed. Why no audit if he has nothing to hide? Yes there is the issue of independence of the Fed, but just how much independence was there say in the last ten years?!

The Federal bank closest to Wall Street, and therefore in a special position with regard to the nation’s largest financial institutions, is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. During the financial crisis Federal Reserve and Treasury Department officials made all major decisions, but the New York Fed executed them.

In the meantime the New York Fed has been criticized as too close to Wall Street. William Poole, a former Fed president, missed a longer-run perspective among the Fed’s staff. They adopted a trader mentality instead and did not pay enough attention to a system skewed towards too much risk taking by numerous bailouts of large Wall Street firms.

The Fed’s board of directors is composed of powerful bankers and corporate titans like Jamie Dimon, the head of JPMorgan Chase, and Jeffrey Immelt, General Electric’s chief. Richard Fuld had to resign after Lehman’s bankruptcy and Stephen Friedman called it quits over a conflict of interest with the other board he served, of investment power house Goldman Sachs. The corporate-federal officials network seems too tight to ever disintegrate.

It is not only the Federal Reserve that has to fear for its independence. The lobbying departments of large financial institutions have expelled their tentacles even into the Financial accounting Standards Board (FASB) of the United States and the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) of Europe.

According to a recent report by an international team of former regulators and corporate officials, the Financial crisis Advisory Group deplored efforts by politicians to prescribe changes on accounting standards. The integrity of valued assets on the books of financial institutions should not be called into question in an effort to save those institutions from potentially harmful bets gone awry. In April, 2009, FASB already caved in to heavy financial lobbying and paused fair-value accounting rules for illiquid assets.

Beside all the regulatory and statutory powers bestowed on elected or appointed officials their most potent tool still remains the integrity of the person and organization in question. It is by no means sufficient for Fed chair Bernanke to communicate his objection to the bailouts on Wall Street even if it is within such an elaborate setting of a town-hall meeting. There is not enough meet on the bone to undo what has already happened.

A Gallop poll, conducted in mid-July, found that only 30% rated the Fed as doing an excellent/good job. The bank had the lowest score out of nine government agencies and it was down sharply from the 53% who still approved of the Fed’s job in 2003. This time even the CIA and the Internal Revenue Service scored better than the Fed. Bernanke will have to do better. It will most certainly be like walking a tightrope.

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Fed chair Bernanke grilled over BofA-Merrill deal

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BernankeTestimonyonBAMer-dealJune252009

It is always a special day when the powerful and mighty are commanded to defend their innocence in front of  a panel of congressional judges. The judges are appointed by the American public and form the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the defendant is chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke. In question is the alleged role of the Federal government, which the Fed is part of, in the takeover of investment firm Merrill Lynch (MER) by Bank of America (BofA) in December of last year.

Some lawmakers accuse the Fed and Bernanke in particular to have Ken Lewis, chairman of BofA, pressured into the deal with Merrill. Earlier this month Lewis testified in front of the same panel and left committee members in doubt about the Fed’s role during the acquisition.

After analyzing a number of email conversations between Fed officials, Ben Bernanke and then Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Paulson, one of the key questions for the Fed chairman centered around an email from Jeffrey Lacker, president of the Richmond Fed, about a conversation he had with Bernanke regarding a potential withdrawal of BofA from the Merrill deal on the grounds of a material adverse change (MAC) clause.

“Just had a long talk with Ben (Bernanke). Says that they think the MAC threat is irrelevant because it’s not credible. Also intends to make it even more clear that if they play that card and they need assistance, management is gone,” Lacker wrote, according to the sources.

In his sworn testimony Bernanke assured the panel that he did not tell BofA’s management that the federal reserve would take action against the board or management if they decided to invoke the MAC clause.

Initially the brisk questioning from lawmakers about the Lacker email seem to physically upset Bernanke. For the most part he denied any accusations and could not recall any details about the conversation. After being asked if he thinks that Lacker is incorrect in his statement Bernanke again stated that he did not know the details of that conversation.

Being asked by Congressman Burden if he believes that Mr. Lacker is lying he again insisted that he did not know if he did say these things or not. Annoyed by Bernanke stonewalling the investigation Burden asked him: “Are you sure you cannot remember?”, and the Fed chairman answered: “I am sure that I can’t remember”.

After it became known that losses at Merrill would be higher than previously thought CEO Lewis intended to evoke the MAC clause. This provoked the Fed and Bernanke to conclude that BofA exerted a serious lack of due diligence and misjudgment in the course of the deal. Congressman Chaffetz from Utah asked Bernanke if he had the power to replace the board, which he affirmed. Chaffetz continued and asked if claiming misjudgment could not be seen as a threat to BofA, which Bernanke again denied by reiterating that he never said anything about firing the board to Lewis.

Congresswoman Kaptur from Ohio touched on an interesting point regarding the relationship of investment firm BlackRock with the Fed in purchasing toxic mortgage related assets. The Fed has several contracts with BlackRock involving programs to purchase and manage a portfolio of toxic mortgage assets the Fed has acquired in the course of diverse bail-outs. Kaptur asked Bernanke if the Fed will support an FBI investigation of BlackRock handling Freddie Mac paper? Bernanke replied that the Fed will certainly not stand in the way if there is an appropriate FBI investigation.

The rest of the questions were rather benign. The chairman seemed to be able during this hearing to pull his head out of the noose, at least for this time , but it seems clear that his reputation is bruised. Even if he did not personally press Ken Lewis into this deal he certainly made his wishes been forcefully known. Whether that constitutes an overreach of government power is not clear at this point. It is too early to see if this will impact his reappointment in January of next year. President Obama has already lent his support to Bernanke. Of great interest will be a hearing before the same committee of Henry Paulson and his recollection of the events around the Merrill-BofA deal next month.

Written by Alfred

25. June 2009 at 11:34 pm

Bernanke’s ‘shotgun marriage’ got him an invitation

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Few institutions enjoy such powerful position and reputation of the highest order like the Federal Reserve Bank in the US. The men who chaired it like Volcker, Greenspan and now Ben Bernanke are among the foremost economists and most influential people on the face of the Earth. While Greenspan’s role in the crisis, that has destroyed Wall Street and crippled the global economy, has been criticized the bank and its current chairman seemingly were left unharmed. To the contrary in the course of the crisis the Fed’s balance sheet has doubled and tripled and the role as lender of last resort has lifted Bernanke into the status of the almighty savior. 

That Ben Bernanke is no saint has now even reached into the halls of the US Congress. Last week Lewis CEO of Bank of America, a financial institution hit very hard by the crisis on Wall Street, testified before The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to the acquisition of investment bank Merrill Lynch in September of 2008. This panel has now ‘invited’ Bernanke to speak about the government’s role in this acquisition. This time it will be quite different though for the chairman, nothing like any of his scheduled testimonies before members of the House and the Senate.

The accusation is serious. According to Lewis government officials threatened to remove BofA’s management if they would step down from the Merrill deal. The House Committee’s questions will focus on numerous emails between Bernanke and other Fed officials from last December. Representative Darrell Issa, a Republican from California, stated at the hearing with Lewis that government officials do not have the power to ‘force shotgun weddings’. The Bernanke hearings will be held on June 25, certainly a day to mark in the calendar.

In another development a Congressman from Texas who is a notorious critic of the Federal Reserve has finally won sufficient support for his bill. Ron Paul and 221 of his colleagues signed on to the Fed Transparency Act, which would require a fresh outside audit of the Federal Reserve. It will now go to the Senate and should it pass it would mean for the first time in history sunshine could fall on this mighty institution. We can only chime in and sing in the age of Aquarius ‘Let the sunshine in’.

Written by Alfred

17. June 2009 at 6:15 pm

Lockhart has full confidence in the Federal Reserve

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Atlanta Fed President Lockhart in a speech did not mention interest rates today. The markets thanked him for that. The European currency and stock markets around the globe gained. So did oil and gold!

In the last paragraph he expressed concern with timely action to rebalance the economy. He seems to be pretty confident though that the Fed is up to the task. Not everybody else is.

I do not dismiss these concerns out of hand. I also recognize that the task of pursuing the Fed’s dual mandate of price stability and sustainable growth will be greatly complicated should deliberate and timely action to address our fiscal imbalances fail to materialize. But I have full confidence in the Federal Reserve’s ability and resolve to meet its inflation objectives in whatever environment presents itself. Of the many risks the U.S. and global economies still confront, I firmly believe the Fed losing sight of its inflation objectives is not among them.

Written by Alfred

11. June 2009 at 9:30 pm