Fed Chairman Bernanke Submits 70 Answers to His Take-Home Exam

A few weeks ago, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke appeared before the Senate Banking Committee for his confirmation hearing. Following the normal ritual, Committee members made their statements and peppered Bernanke with questions about every economic topic under the sun. That much is well-known (and was closely followed on CNBC).

What’s less well-known is that Bernanke went back to his office to discover an enormous stack of homework, including a 70-question take-home exam from Senator Jim Bunning.

Senator Bunning’s questions cover a lot of territory: Fed policy, fiscal policy, AIG, the dollar, etc. Chairman Bernanke’s answers are worth a read, when you have time for a 34-page, single-spaced document.

Here’s one important excerpt, reiterating the Fed’s view that Lehman could not have been saved with then-existing authorities:

54. What was your rationale for letting Lehman fail?

Concerted government attempts to find a buyer for Lehman Brothers or to develop an industry solution proved unsuccessful. Moreover, providers of both secured and unsecured credit to the company were rapidly pulling away from the company and the company needed funding well above the amount that could be provided on a secured basis. As you know, the Federal Reserve cannot make an unsecured loan. Because the ability to provide capital to the institution had not yet been authorized under the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, the firm’s failure was, unfortunately, unavoidable. The Lehman situation is a clear example of why the government needs the ability to wind down a large, interconnected firm in an orderly way that both mitigates the costs on society as whole and imposes losses on the shareholders and creditors of the failing firm.

P.S. Calculated Risk also posts some good excerpts.

Lessons from the Fall of Lehman

As you have undoubtedly noticed, this week marks the one-year anniversary of the fall of Lehman Brothers–the moment at which the financial crisis became a severe economic crisis.

I did an interview on Fox Business on Tuesday to discuss some of the lessons learned. (My wife’s comment  on the interview: “You need to straighten your collar next time.”)

Going in, I had two basic points I wanted to make:

  • First, the fall of Lehman Brothers was the moment that the abstract threat of “systemic risk” became tangible to many policy makers and the public. As we progressed from propping up Bear Stearns to taking over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, many observers began to suffer from policy fatigue, and, in some circles, there was concern that the scale of the government actions might be disproportionate to the alleged, but little-seen, risk of a systemic crisis. That changed when Lehman fell, and the dominoes started toppling.
  • Second, we still have our work cut out for us. The major items on our to do list include:

(1) Taking steps to avoid such enormous shocks in the future (e.g., by increasing capital requirements and reducing allowed leverage for financial firms).

(2) Fixing the problem of too-big-to-fail (or, if you prefer, too-interconnected-to-fail). Unfortunately, this problem has worsened, in many ways, since the crisis began. Some gigantic firms have grown even larger. And the necessary interventions to prop up the financial sector have reinforced the idea that the government will prevent these firms from failing in the future.

(3) Disentangling the government from private firms, so that it can again act as a referee, not as a player. That will take time given the enormous investment portfolio that the government has amassed in financial firms and the auto companies. It is heartening, however, that even Citigroup is beginning to ponder how to raise outside capital and reduce the government stake.

Wall Street Goes to Washington

A front page story in today’s Washington Post (“In Shift, Wall Street Goes to Washington“) documents the Capital’s rising importance in the financial world:

J.P. Morgan Chase for the first time convened its board in Washington this summer, calling the directors to a meeting at the downtown Hay-Adams hotel, then dispatching them to Capitol Hill for meet-and-greets.

Last month, a firm run by the billionaire investor Wilbur Ross hired the head of Washington’s top mortgage regulator to pick through the wreckage of the housing bust looking for bargains.

And the world’s largest bond fund, Pimco, which has traditionally assessed the risk of any new investment according to five financial criteria, recently added one more: the impact of any change in federal policy.

“In the old days, Washington was refereeing from the sideline,” said Mohamed A. el-Erian, chief executive officer of Pimco. “In the new world we’re going toward, not only is Washington refereeing from the field, but it is also in some respects a player as well. . . . And that changes the dynamics significantly.”

The Ross example doesn’t tell us much — the financial world has always recruited government officials. The J.P. Morgan and Pimco examples, however, highlight how much the playing field has changed over the past two years. Washington is not just a more aggressive regulator. Given the stresses on the system, it has become a serial intervener — stepping in to prop up specific firms or credit channels that appear too important to fail. And it is now a major investor, with a burgeoning portfolio of investments in financial firms, auto companies, and mortgage backed securities.

As we commemorate the first anniversary of the fall of Lehman, it appears that the worst of the financial and economic crisis is behind us. And the policy conversation should increasingly focus on exit strategies. Not just the narrow question of how the Federal Reserve eventually unwinds the extraordinary expansion of its programs. But also how the Treasury eventually unwinds it TARP investments. How the FDIC walks back from offering guarantees on bank debt. How the government restructures Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

And, perhaps most importantly, how policymakers recalibrate their relationship with financial markets. To paraphrase Mohamed A. el-Arian: can Washington return to being a referee on the sidelines or will it continue to be a player?