The Tragedy of Ben Bernanke

BERKELEY – It is difficult to read former US Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke’s new memoir, The Courage to Act, as anything other than a tragedy. It is the story of a man who may have been the best-prepared person in the world for the job he was given, but who soon found himself outmatched by its challenges, quickly falling behind the curve and never quite managing to catch up.

It is to Bernanke’s great credit that the shock of 2007-2008 did not trigger another Great Depression. But his response to its aftermath was unexpectedly disappointing. In 2000, Bernanke had argued that a central bank with sufficient will could “always,” in the medium term at least, restore full prosperity via quantitative easing. If a central bank printed money and bought financial assets on a large-enough scale, people would begin to step up their spending. Even if people believed that only a fraction of quantitative easing was permanent, and even if the incentive to spend was low, the central bank could restart the economy.

In the end however, Bernanke did not deliver. Even though the Fed and many other central banks printed much more money than economists would have thought necessary to offset the impact of the financial crisis, full prosperity has yet to be restored. Bernanke increased the US monetary base five-fold, from $800 billion to $4 trillion. But it wasn’t enough. And then, his courage failing, he balked at taking the next leap: more than doubling the monetary base to $9 trillion. In his last years in office, Bernanke was reduced to begging in vain for Congress to institute fiscal expansion.

So what went wrong? The answer, as is often the case, depends on which economist you ask. If I understand Bernanke correctly, he would argue that nothing fundamental went wrong, and that a temporary savings glut has artificially lengthened the time it takes for aggressive monetary expansion to restore full prosperity. Loss-adverse sovereign wealth funds, emerging-market millionaires parking their money in the US and Europe, and governments seeking to ensure freedom of action have pushed full-prosperity interest rates down substantially and extended the time it takes for shocks to dissipate.