The Grilling of Ben Bernanke

June 25, 2009

Ben Bernanke’s testimony to Congress about his involvement in the Bank of America-Merrill Lynch  merger was a lot like an FOMC statement: short and unadorned, yet open to much interpretation. When the Federal Reserve wasn’t repeatedly saying “I don’t remember” or “I don’t recollect,” he was matter-of-factly stating that he didn’t intend to threaten Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis with termination if he didn’t go through with the Merrill deal.

Yet both Republicans (all) and Democrats (some) seemed astonished that Bernanke wouldn’t admit that having the Fed outline all the negative repercussions of invoking the “material adverse change” clause to escape the Merrill deal was a de facto threat to BofA management. Whether or not Bernanke actually believed his script was impossible to prove, since the Republicans, particularly Representative Darrell Issa of California, didn’t have evidence that Bernanke did intend to directly threaten Lewis.

It was Issa who said on television that Bernanke was engaged in a “cover-up” to disguise his actions in pushing the merger. Great claims require great proof. And Issa didn’t have great proof, just a bit of hearsay.
Yes, there was an email showing that Richmond Federal Reserve President Jeffrey Lacker claimed he told Lewis, after having a long talk with Bernanke, that BofA management was “gone” if it played the MAC threat. But Bernanke said that was a misinterpretation of his chat with Lacker.

So unless there is a transcript of the Lacker-Bernanke chat floating around somewhere, a dead end has been reached. Issa clearly overplayed his hand if what he actually meant to prove was that an outright deception had taken place. (Even if he had a smoking gun and Bernanke was somehow forced to resign, Issa would probably not like Fed Chairman Lawrence Summers any better.)

Then again, perhaps what the Republicans were actually trying to do was to paint Bernanke as an enabler of President Obama’s supposed big government policies. There has been a conservative backlash against the notion of the Fed operating as a “systemic risk” regulator that could serve as a catalyst for government takeovers of financial institutions — or bullying them, as the GOP charged Bernanke with doing in this case.

Of course, another criticism of the Fed as super-regulator would be that such a role would overly politicize the central bank. Indeed, it did seem weird that after grilling Bernanke for three hours and implying that he was lying, one Republican offered up a question about M2 and monetary policy.

Perhaps the one bit of evidence that did come out of the Bernanke interrogation was that having the Fed regulate banks and conduct monetary policy is a bad idea if you care about central bank independence.

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