CAMBRIDGE – The race is on to fill the most important economic policy position in the world. United States Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s term ends in January, and President Barack Obama must decide before then: either re-appoint Bernanke or go with someone else – the names most often mentioned are Larry Summers and Janet Yellen – with more solid Democratic credentials.
It is a decision of momentous consequence not just for the US, but also for the world economy. As guardians of the nation’s money supply and setters of short-term interest rates, central bankers have always played a critical role. Lower the interest rate too much, and inflation and monetary instability result. Raise it too much, and the economy slides into recession and unemployment.
Monetary policy is hardly a science, so a good central banker must be humble. He must appreciate the limits of his understanding and of the efficacy of the tools at his disposal. Yet he cannot afford to be perceived as indecisive, which would only invite destabilizing financial speculation.
Indeed, as important as their functions are, in recent decades central banks have become even more significant as a consequence of the development of financial markets. Even when not formally designated as such, central banks have become the guardians of financial-market sanity. The dangers of failing at this task have been made painfully clear in the sub-prime mortgage debacle. Under Obama’s proposed new rules, the Fed will have even larger responsibilities, and will be charged with averting financial crises and ensuring that banks are not taking on too much risk.