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Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Federal Reserve: Expanding its Turf in Spite of Having Come Up Short

Testifying before the US Senate Finance Committee on his re-appointment, Ben Bernanke volunteered that the Fed had been “slow” in protecting consumers from high-risk mortgages during the housing bubble and that it should have forced banks to hold more capital for all the risks they were taking on.  “In the area where we had responsibility, the bank holding companies, we should have done more.” he told lawmakers.  The hearing provided new evidence of doubt among lawmakers about the Federal Reserve’s  role as the nation’s guardian of the financial system. “In the face of rising home prices and risky mortgage underwriting, the Fed failed to act,” said Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the senior Republican on the banking committee. “Many of the Fed’s responses, in my view, greatly amplified the problem of moral hazard stemming from ‘too big to fail’ treatment of large financial institutions and activities.”  Accordingly, Senator Dodd proposed that the Fed’s powers as a bank regulator ought to be transferred to a new consolidated agency. Even though Bernanke admitted that the Fed made mistakes as a regulator of the bank holding companies, he and other top Fed officials adamantly opposed Dodd's proposal, arguing that the Fed has unique expertise nonetheless and that the Fed's ability to preserve financial stability depends on having the detailed information that only a regulator has about the inner workings of major institutions.

The Fed has “unique expertise," and yet, “In the area where we had responsibility, the bank holding companies, we should have done more.”   In other words, the Fed’s Chairman admitted that his agency had not done a satisfactory job of regulating banks during the housing bubble and yet his organization should be given even more power as a regulator anyway.  Were we to trust the Fed to regulate systemic risk, given the agency’s squalid record leading up to the financial crisis of 2008? Regardless of what qualms this question may have raised, the Dodd-Frank legislation charged the Fed with guarding the financial stability of the United States. It gave the central bank the power to oversee the largest financial institutions, even if they are not banks. Finally, it gave the Fed a prominent role on the Financial Stability Oversight Council, a body of regulators that will have the power to seize a systemically important company if it threatens the stability of the economy. Testifying before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission on September 2, 2010, Bernanke signaled that the central bank was eager to embrace its strengthened role provided for in the Dodd-Frank law. This role ought to give us pause, given his remarks in 2007 in which he thought the subprime problems were “manageable.” To the Commission in 2010, he said, “What I did not recognize was the extent to which the system had flaws and weaknesses in it that were going to amplify the initial shock from subprime and make it into a much bigger crisis.”

Sources: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/04/business/economy/04fed.html?ref=business ; http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/03/business/03commission.html?_r=1&ref=business