Thursday, August 30, 2007

Is Ben Bernanke Different From Alan Greenspan? – You be the Judge

Excerpts below from a WSJ article discuss the possible differences between Ben Bernanke and Alan Greenspan. The original online article is also interesting because you get to vote for whom you think is better.

When Ben Bernanke was nominated to head the Federal Reserve in 2005, he promised to "maintain continuity with the policies and policy strategies established during the Greenspan years." But in handling his first financial crisis, Mr. Bernanke shows signs of a break with Alan Greenspan, the Fed's chairman from 1987 to 2006.

That shift is important in understanding why Mr. Bernanke hasn't cut the Fed's main interest rate yet, and it could alter investors' expectations of how the Bernanke Fed will function.
The Fed historically has had two major economic duties. Maintaining financial stability is one. Controlling inflation while preventing recession is the other.

To Mr. Greenspan, market confidence and the economy's growth prospects were so intertwined as to make the Fed's two duties almost inseparable. He cut rates after the 1987 stock-market crash and the near-collapse of hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management in 1998 to prevent investor reluctance to take risks from undermining the nation's economic growth.

By contrast, Mr. Bernanke distinguishes between the central bank's two functions. So, on Aug. 17, the Fed cut the interest rate and lengthened the term on loans to banks from its little-used discount window in hopes banks would use the window -- or at least the knowledge it was available -- to lend to solid borrowers having trouble getting credit amidst the market turmoil. The action was aimed at restoring the normal functioning of disrupted credit markets, not primarily at boosting growth.

The Fed, meanwhile, hasn't cut the far more economically important federal-funds rate, charged on loans between banks, which is the benchmark for all short-term U.S. borrowing costs.
To be sure, all central bankers see a link between financial and economic stability. Falling prices for assets like stocks, bonds and homes and tighter credit conditions can damp spending and investment. . . . .

. . . . . Mr. Bernanke's approach to the credit crunch is, in part, an effort to undo perceptions fostered by Mr. Greenspan's rate-cutting interventions. Though successful, they drew allegations of "moral hazard" -- that is, of encouraging investors to act more recklessly because they think the Fed will protect them.

Neither Mr. Bernanke nor his closest colleagues, some of whom served under Mr. Greenspan, believe there ever was a "Greenspan put," a reference to a contract that protects an investor from loss.

Yet officials acknowledge the perception that the Fed has bailed out investors in the past. When the stock market crashed in 1987, Mr. Greenspan, then on the job for just two months, used aggressive open-market operations -- buying and selling government securities -- to pump banks full of cash, which caused the federal-funds rate to fall to about 6.75% from 7.25%. His priority was to keep banks well supplied with cash so that strapped securities dealers wouldn't fail for lack of financing.

"We shouldn't really focus on longer-term policy questions until we get beyond this immediate period of chaos," transcripts record him telling colleagues the day after the crash. The Fed kept the funds rate low in ensuing months, and the economy didn't skip a beat.
In 1998, Russia's default on its debt, followed by the near-collapse of Long-Term Capital Management, caused credit markets to freeze up, much as they have recently. Mr. Greenspan's reaction illustrated how much he considered investors' attitudes toward risk as intrinsic to the economy's health.

"It would be wrong to say that the change in psychology is all ephemeral just because we have not seen it in the hard data yet," he told colleagues. "It is the change in value judgments that alters the real world." The Fed cut interest rates three times by a total of three-quarters of a percentage point that fall. The economy accelerated, and the stock market, erasing its losses, went on to more spectacular gains.

Mr. Bernanke may yet have to cut rates. But the longer he waits, the more likely he can break investors of the assumption that market convulsions lead to interest-rate cuts. There is evidence he is succeeding. On Aug. 16, with stocks plunging and debt markets in disarray, money manager Bridgewater Associates wrote in its widely read daily commentary: "Credit in the economy is shutting down, and the Fed needs to ease now."

By this past Tuesday, with markets having settled down, the same firm wrote: "If we were in the Fed's shoes, we certainly wouldn't be in a hurry to 'save the system' until there was more evidence that the system needed saving."

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