Nicholas Wapshott

Despite flaws, Summers is the best candidate for Fed chair

Nicholas Wapshott
Jul 30, 2013 14:40 UTC

The two-horse race to replace Ben Bernanke as the Fed chairman appears to have come down to gender. In a letter to the president, about a third of Senate Democrats have made clear they would like Bernanke’s deputy Janet Yellen to replace him, primarily — though they do not openly say it — because she is a woman.

The White House, it seems, would prefer Larry Summers, Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary who was also director of Barack Obama’s National Economic Council. Summers is a distinguished economist, a former chief economist of the World Bank and briefly, until he was subsumed by controversy, president of Harvard University. (Summers writes a monthly column for Reuters.)

It is true there are not enough women in top positions. It is true, too, that Janet Yellen is a distinguished economist with considerable reserve bank experience. But her gender should not in itself be enough qualification for her to be awarded with one of the most important jobs in the nation.

The Fed chairmanship has always been a powerful position, but when there is gridlock in government thanks to the Republican majority in the House deciding to pass no new measures whatever — Speaker Boehner defines his job as repealer-in-chief, not legislator-in-chief — the Federal Reserve is the sole provider of economic policy. For that pivotal post we need the best person for the job.

There is a strong case for giving the job to Summers. He is not only a distinguished theoretical economist but an original thinker at a time when what we need above all is ingenuity. He is hard to pigeonhole. He has firm views and is headstrong, which should commend him to those who believe the Fed has become obedient to the executive branch. Although a lifelong Democrat, Summers rarely follows the party line.

Bernanke sets major challenges for his successor

Nicholas Wapshott
Jun 20, 2013 16:40 UTC

Now comes the hard part. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s announcement that if the conditions are right he will wean the U.S. economy off quantitative easing within a year has already caused consternation in the stock market. Pumping money into the system by buying back government bonds at the rate of $85 billion a month has lately done little good, which is a persuasive reason to wind it down. But getting from here to there without incident is not going to be easy. It was simpler for Howard Hughes to land his gargantuan super-plane, the Spruce Goose.

Flooding the economy with easy money was meant to encourage businesses to borrow and invest. Instead, banks and businesses have ended up hoarding cash, waiting for a recovery to start before they take the plunge. Or the surplus money has been parked in stocks, lifting the market to an unprecedented, unsustainable high. That is what happens when you have a one-trick economic policy, dickering with the money supply and little else. As Keynes liked to say, you can’t get fat by buying a bigger belt. But stopping the flow of cheap money and hinting at an eventual increase in interest rates has consequences and they may be uncomfortable.

The first to get the jitters is the stock market. Even before Bernanke’s announcement, his previous hint that QE would be “tapered” sent a shiver through Wall Street. Now that he is turning off the juice for good, there is general trepidation. The eventual rise in interest rates is making the real estate market nervous, too, which is troublesome as home purchases are driving the still fragile recovery. On the other hand, there is no better time to buy a home. Mortgages will never be as cheap again, unless there is another slump-inducing financial meltdown, so now is the time to buy, or to refinance while interest rates are on the floor. And as the Fed withdraws from the government bonds market, yields are going to soar.

The case for keeping Bernanke

Nicholas Wapshott
May 31, 2013 23:25 UTC

Whisper it abroad: The U.S. economy is on the mend. Most recent indicators suggest that, five years after the start of the Great Recession, the “L-shaped” recovery is finally heading north. The stock market is booming, and home prices are on the upswing. The rising price of houses makes people feel richer, and consumer confidence is on the mend. Private borrowing is up, and consumers are starting to spend again.

Growth is not great, about 2.5 percent to the end of the year, when the postwar average is 3.2 percent, but it is steady and appears to be self-sustaining. And this despite the 1.5 percent reduction on what growth would be were it not for the clumsy sequester’s fiscal drag. The general outlook is bright, if not sunny. As Winston Churchill said after the Battle of Alamein, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Why whisper this good news? Because the idea that we have achieved recovery suggests to some it is time for the Federal Reserve to change tack. Monetary policy is the only instrument the administration has left. Hampered by a hostile House of Representatives, President Barack Obama’s “jobs bill” to stimulate the economy is long forgotten. Even he doesn’t mention it anymore.