James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

The next Treasury secretary will be …

Feb 3, 2010 15:43 UTC

Well, Simon Johnson thinks it should be Tom Hoenig, president of the Kansas City Fed:

  1. He’s currently the only senior Fed official who has been outspoken (or even spoken out) against banks that are undoubtedly Too Big To Fail (TBTF).  Hoenig has been a beacon of clarity on this issue over the past year.  Compared with central bank officials – and almost everyone else – Hoenig stands out as a model of straight thinking and a proponent of tough action.  With his disarming but no nonsense approach, he is the perfect person to take on the likes of Lloyd Blankfein (Goldman Sachs) and Vikram Pandit (Citigroup) both in the corridors of power and in the nitty gritty of their rather sordid business models.  Hoenig is a career bank supervisor and nobody’s fool.  Blankfein and Pandit are just two more guys who run banks that have gone bad.  You know how that movie ends.
  2. Hoenig, who sits on the Federal Open Market Committee, is also an inflation hawk – at least by today’s standards.  This makes some would be supporters – including fans of his attitude on TBTF – rather wary of advancing his name (e.g., as chairman of the Fed Board).  This hesitation is understandable although likely mistaken; you don’t keep the federal funds rate essentially zero for long when nominal GDP is growing at more than a 6 percent annual rate.  In any case, the issue is irrelevant for the Treasury job.  The Treasury Secretary’s responsibility in a modern administration is to run financial sector policy, meaning bailouts and how to avoid them.  Peter Orszag has the budget and Ben Bernanke (gulp) holds the monetary tiller.  What we desperately need is someone who can sort out our largest banks.
  3. Tom Hoenig is almost certainly a Republican, although – as head of a regional reserve bank – the full range of his views, outside of banking and money, are not widely known.  Paul Krugman reasonably points out that if he (Krugman) were nominated for the Fed (or Treasury or anything else), this would likely run into trouble in the Senate.  Hoenig is a completely different kettle of fish, appealing to sensible Democrats and Republicans – yes, there are a few – who increasingly worry about massive banks and their electoral implications.  And while financial sector policy is job one, serious efforts to address the budget – led by people of all ilk with a strong grip on economic realities – also lie in our future.  Either that or the republic will perish.  Not a tough choice in the end, but it does need to involve at least a few Republicans.
  4. He’s a Republican.  See point 3 above, and remember that President Obama offered Senator Judd Gregg (R., New Hampshire) the position of Commerce Secretary at the beginning of his administration.
  5. The market will react negatively, because it will sense the era of unlimited bailouts is drawing to a close.  Sure, but that’s the point.
  6. He’ll be captured by Big Finance, just as Geithner was. Spend some time with Tom Hoenig before you jump to this conclusion.

There will be objections to be sure.

  • He’s just a regional Fed governor. True, but so was Tim Geithner.
  • He’ll be captured by Big Finance, just as Geithner was. Spend some time with Tom Hoenig before you jump to this conclusion.
  • The market will react negatively, because it will sense the era of unlimited bailouts is drawing to a close. Sure, but that’s the point.
  • He’s a Republican. See point 3 above, and remember that President Obama offered Senator Judd Gregg (R., New Hampshire) the position of Commerce Secretary at the beginning of his administration.

Bernanke wins confirmation 70-30

Jan 28, 2010 21:40 UTC

Almost twice as many no votes as Volcker who got 16 back in 1983. BB will have to tough it out against a Congress that wants to push the Fed around.  Barney Frank, for instance, wants to kick the regional bank president off the FOMC since they are not confirmed by Senate — and are often to hawkish for his tastes.

More on the Bernanke Meltdown

Jan 25, 2010 16:05 UTC

Intrade says Beranke is lock, but maybe not, according to the always insightful Dan Clifton of Strategas Research:

Contrary to this morning’s headlines, we believe Chairman Bernanke’s reappointment this week is still far from certain and may become eerily reminiscent of the first TARP vote. After last week’s confirmation vote for Fed Chairman Bernanke was called off due to insufficient votes, the Administration and Congressional leaders are in the headlines this morning claiming he has the votes now and will be confirmed. Intrade odds for Bernanke’s confirmation bumped higher on the news. But our review of the numbers suggests Bernanke still faces a tough road, virtually all of the undecided Senators must break for the Chairman in order for him to secure reappointment.

The case against Bernanke

Jan 25, 2010 15:33 UTC

From AEI’s Desmond Lachman:

Bernanke’s sole claim for a second term rests on the masterful and bold way in which he prevented the U.S. economy from falling into the abyss following the Lehman debacle in September 2008. However, this begs the question as to who led us to the abyss in the first place. Throughout 2006, when the worst of the sub-prime lending was taking place, Bernanke was conspicuously silent in sounding the alarm about the dangers of the U.S. housing bubble. Similarly, he was painfully slow in recognizing how severe the fallout from the bursting of the housing bubble would be and he displayed the poorest of judgments in allowing Lehman to fail in as disorderly manner as it did.

If there is one more item that should sink Bernanke’s bid for a second term it has to be his recent statement that the Federal Reserve’s extraordinarily low interest rate policy between 2001 and 2004 contributed little to the creation of the largest U.S. housing market bubble on record. The Senate would do well to ask itself whether the economy’s interests would be best served by again choosing a Fed chairman who seems to have learned so very little from the Federal Reserve’s past monumental mistakes.


Bernacke was singing the praises of the economy in June 2008, along with King Paulsen.

Three months later they were in Bush’s office declaring the world as we know it would end if Bush didn’t immediately grant them the power of gods.

Maybe Ben isn’t as brilliant as people would have you believe. Or at the very least, he either isn’t a very good forecaster or he’s an outright liar.

Posted by proreason | Report as abusive

A timeline for the financial crisis

Jan 4, 2010 20:42 UTC

Responding to Ben Bernanke’s defense of Fed interest rate policy, my pal Barry Ritholtz lays out a crisis timeline (the only thing missing is various US housing policy initiatives):

An honest assessment of the crisis’ causation (and timeline) would look something like the following:

1. Ultra low interest rates led to a scramble for yield by fund managers;

2. Not coincidentally, there was a massive push into subprime lending by unregulated NONBANKS who existed solely to sell these mortgages to securitizers;

3. Since they were writing mortgages for resale (and held them only briefly) these non-bank lenders collapsed their lending standards; this allowed them to write many more mortgages;

4. These poorly underwritten loans — essentially junk paper — was sold to Wall Street for securitization in huge numbers.

5. Massive ratings fraud of these securities by Fitch, Moody’s and S&P led to a rating of this junk as TripleAAA.

6. That investment grade rating of junk paper allowed those scrambling bond managers (see #1) to purchase higher yield paper that they would not otherwise have been able to.

7. Increased leverage of investment houses allowed a huge securitization manufacturing process; Some iBanks also purchased this paper in enormous numbers;

8. More leverage took place in the shadow derivatives market. That allowed firms like AIG to write $3 trillion in derivative exposure, much of it in mortgage and credit related areas.

9. Compensation packages in the financial sector were asymmetrical, where employees had huge upside but shareholders (and eventually taxpayers) had huge downside. This (logically) led to increasingly aggressive and risky activity.

10. Once home prices began to fall, all of the above fell apart.


As of coming out of recession, there is an economic growth but slow. Financial crisis is prevented by Fed’s ability. It shows the impression that banking and private-sector is the reason behind this whole credit collapsed and mess.

Posted by Nikkilarsson | Report as abusive

The Fed’s new term-deposit tool is politically risky

Dec 29, 2009 15:02 UTC

OK, so Ben Bernanke has cooked up a new idea to remove liquidity from the financial system,  a term-deposit program that would allow banks to park cash at the Fed. It would be like a CD of various maturities for banks. But there are some political risks here for Bernanke & Co. given the current high level of anti-Fed sentiment in Washington and in the rest of the country. First, the Fed could be accused of contributing to the freeze in small-biz lending by giving banks something else to do with their money.

Second, as analyst Jaret Seiberg of Concept Capital’s Washington research group notes,  the Fed would pay banks an interest rate that’s higher than the rate paid for simply keeping reserves at the central bank. “This is cash that could have otherwise gone to the Treasury Department. We see how some could portray this as another bailout or taxpayer subsidy for the banking industry.”

In other words, this gives the anti-Fed folks a bit more ammo when BB’s nomination comes up for a full Senate vote next month. As it is,  the Fed chairman will probably get at least 50 percent more “no” votes than any of his predecessors.

Bernanke nomination in more trouble than you think

Dec 22, 2009 15:48 UTC

Ben Bernanke’s close escape from the Senate Banking Committee sets him up for a record number of final “no” votes on his renomination as Federal Reserve chairman. A second term is still overwhelmingly likely. But such unprecedented disapproval suggests Bernanke will be a 2010 campaign issue. That could make the Fed ever more susceptible to political pressure when it comes to tighten the easy money spigot.

Fed nominations typically glide through committee. When President Jimmy Carter nominated G. William Miller for the post in 1978, the lone dissenting voice was that of gadfly William Proxmire of Wisconsin. He called Miller a joke and said putting him on the Fed would be like sending ballet star Rudolf Nureyev against the heavyweight boxing champ. And despite widespread public blame for the recession in 1981-82 Paul Volcker received just two no committee votes in 1983.

So seven negative votes out of 23 is historically high – nor was it just a few cranky contrarians dissenting. The ranking Republican voted “nay.” So too did Kay Bailey Hutchinson, a soft conservative running in the Texas GOP gubernatorial primary against a hardliner. That’s a strong hint that baseline conservative Republicans plan an anti-Fed platform in midterm elections. And pro-Bernanke votes will be wielded by challengers to incumbents.

So expect many GOPers to abandon Bernanke next month when his job along with a smattering of nervous Democrats facing re-election. Maybe a fifth to a third of the full Senate could vote no, a startling number considering that the high-water mark is 16 final votes against Volcker in 1983. A simple voice vote was enough for Alan Greenspan in 1992 and 2004, and Bernanke himself in 2006.

Congress is already nibbling at Fed independence. An audit of the central bank could even be inserted into financial reforms. There’s also an effort to toss the hawkish regional bank presidents off the group that sets monetary policy. Bernanke’s tepid support in the Senate is another crack in the Fed’s political heat shield. It is also one more reason to question whether the Fed will have the institutional guts to withdraw monetary stimulus when it should, despite stubbornly high unemployment.

Ben Bernanke, 2009 Person of the Year

Dec 16, 2009 13:37 UTC

Or so says Time. With the vast array of unprecedented Fed actions, it is hard to argue with the selection.  But this might not be Bernanke’s last selection if inflation picks up. Remember, the award goes for the person who had the most impact, for good or ill.


too true. remember Time’s 1938 man of the year? That ‘stache was all the rage.

Posted by Bill York | Report as abusive

The coming assault on the Fed

Dec 11, 2009 15:09 UTC

This piece by Paul Krugman reinforces my feeling that the Federal Reserve is going to be hit hard for not doing even more to boost the economy. He wants the Fed balance sheet expanded even more to promote faster growth.

The most specific, persuasive case I’ve seen for more Fed action comes from Joseph Gagnon, a former Fed staffer now at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Basing his analysis on the prior work of none other than Mr. Bernanke himself, in his previous incarnation as an economic researcher, Mr. Gagnon urges the Fed to expand credit by buying a further $2 trillion in assets. Such a program could do a lot to promote faster growth, while having hardly any downside.

So why isn’t the Fed doing it? Part of the answer may be political: Ideological opponents of government activism tend to be as critical of the Fed’s credit expansion as they are of the Obama administration’s fiscal stimulus. And this has probably made the Fed reluctant to use its powers to their fullest extent. Meanwhile, a significant number of Fed officials, especially at the regional banks, are obsessed with the fear of 1970s-style inflation, which they see lurking just around the bend even though there’s not a hint of it in the actual data.

Me: The Fed is going to get hammered if it starts clearing the balance sheet and raising rates while unemployment is still elevated. Expect more attacks by Congress like Barney Frank’s wish to depower the regional Fed presidents, kicking them off the FOMC. Yes, the Fed is getting his in Congress by this audit bill. But the worst is yet to come.


More reason to be short the dollar!

Posted by Johnba | Report as abusive

The case against Bernanke

Dec 4, 2009 18:33 UTC

Some self-incriminating evidence (Bernanke in his own words) supplied by David Leonhardt of the NYTimes:

* July 1, 2005 (responding to a CNBC question about whether there was a housing bubble and whether it could cause a recession): “It’s a pretty unlikely possibility. We’ve never had a decline in house prices on a nationwide basis. So, what I think what is more likely is that house prices will slow, maybe stabilize, might slow consumption spending a bit. I don’t think it’s gonna drive the economy too far from its full employment path, though.”

* May 17, 2007: “We do not expect significant spillovers from the subprime market to the rest of the economy or to the financial system.”

* July 18, 2007 (a month before the subprime mortgage market began having problems and five months before the recession began): “Employment should continue to expand. … The global economy continues to be strong. … Financial markets have remained supportive of economic growth.”

* Feb. 28, 2008: “Among the largest banks, the capital ratios remain good, and I don’t expect any serious problems … among the large, internationally active banks that make up a very substantial part of our banking system.”

* June 9, 2008 (six months into the recession and three months before the financial panic began): “The risk that the economy has entered a substantial downturn appears to have diminished over the past month or so.”

* May 5, 2009: “Currently, we don’t think [the unemployment rate] will get to 10 percent.” (Five months later, the rate reached 10.2 percent.)


The truest words I have heard in weeks, gotthardbahn! Ever consider running for office? lol