Will More Power Mean More of a Good Thing…Or Not?

In January of this year, if anyone had asked me what I thought about Ben Bernanke, the U.S. Federal Reserve’s chairman, I would probably have answered something along the lines of: “There goes a poor copy of Alan Greenspan minus the charisma, but pushing the same-old and, by now, pretty broken-down agenda.”

I was not the only one. Lawmakers in the U.S. were not impressed with Bernanke either. He was widely criticized for failing to identify the credit storm brewing in 2007. And, when the first signs of the subprime toxic volcano erupting started showing up, the Fed’s chairman was accused of failing to do anything about that, too. As a result, the negative sentiment towards the Fed was so strong earlier this year that there were open discussions about taking away its regulatory authority.

Now, with three-quarters of the year almost over, Bernanke is back and as strong as ever. On July 21, the Obama Administration successfully ran the financial regulation overhaul through the U.S. legislative gauntlet. The new law not only left the Fed’s monetary power untarnished, but it also gave it new powers over the U.S. banking system. These new powers are many and vast. To say that the Fed’s new mandate regulating Main Street is powerful and broad is an understatement.

I’d say change is good. However, it often comes with strings attached. In Bernanke’s case, his two mandates, regulating monetary policy and Main Street, are not only essentially different, but are also often in conflict.

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On the one hand, as a monetary policy manager, Bernanke must fight like he’s never fought before to keep the fragile and anemic U.S. recovery going at whatever pace it can, as long as the recovery doesn’t stop or, worse, revert back into a recession. On the other hand, the Fed’s chairman, as America’s new regulator-in-chief, could be obligated to make certain difficult decisions.

For example, if there were a repeat of the crash of 2008, the Fed might be put in a position to force banks to preserve capital and tighten their lending. However, such Main Street policies would likely put a squeeze on liquidity again and asphyxiate economic growth, which, of course, is in direct opposition to the Fed’s original monetary policy mandate.

Is the Fed able to call both sides of the coin? I’m not so sure, having in mind the Fed’s track record in the past, when it had to cope with multiple roles. In addition, if the crash of 2008 has taught us anything, it is that monetary policy and bank regulation make for a very bad cocktail. So far, the only thing the regulators have made us swallow were taxpayer-backed bailouts, budget deficits, excess of money supply, interest rates being ultra-low, and the devastation of either deflation or inflation.

On the other hand, who, or what, is left out there to bring some order to the financial markets? It appears that Congress has looked and looked, and the only man they found still standing and fitting the bill is Bernanke. I may not agree with Congress that he is “the smartest guy in the room,” but I’ll contend that he is the only one willing to take the job.