Time for Bernanke to 'man up'

The Fed needs to show Wall Street that it - and not the markets - is calling the shots.

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By Paul R. La Monica, editor at large

The Fed throws a lifeline
A global markets sell-off and fears of a recession prompt the Federal Reserve to cut two key interest rates.

NEW YORK ( -- "This was a sad day for Bernanke," a bond fund manager told me the day after the Federal Reserve cut interest rates by an aggressive half-point back in September.

The manager's argument at that time was that the Fed chairman was showing that it could be bullied by Wall Street.

Since then, the Fed has gotten even easier to push around. The central bank's dramatic three-quarter of a percentage point rate cut last Tuesday was the equivalent of shoving a pacifier in a crying baby's mouth.

And that only stopped the whining for a little bit. The market is set for another ugly day Monday and Wall Street is moaning for another rate cut - according to futures, investors are pricing in a 82 percent chance of another half-point cut this Wednesday.

Enough is enough. It's time for Ben Bernanke and the rest of the Fed to pull a page from Tony Danza's book and show investors who's the boss.

Yes, the economy is teetering on the edge of a recession, if it isn't already in one. But the Fed has already cut the fed funds rate by 175 basis points since September.

If the Fed lowers rates much further, it risks going too far.

Historically low rates set the stage for this mortgage mess in the first place.

Plus, the central bank has already loaned $70 billion to needy banks through a series of three auctions since December and it is conducting a fourth auction for $30 billion today. The Fed has said that the credit markets are already benefiting from these auctions.

And the Fed still has to be worried about inflation. That certainly shouldn't be the Fed's biggest concern right now but it is silly to suggest that inflation is dead considering the high prices of oil, gold, wheat and other commodities. Inflation is dead only if you have the luxury of not needing to drive anywhere, heat your house or eat.

I'm not optimistic that the Fed will stand up to Wall Street. Market conditions are too fragile right now.

Still, I hope that some members of the Fed are paying close attention to what one of their colleagues had to say recently about the risk of cutting rates too drastically.

Dallas Federal Reserve president Richard Fisher, speaking in Philadelphia on the same day that Bernanke was giving his blessing to an economic stimulus package during testimony on Capitol Hill, made some interesting remarks that the market pretty much ignored. Read his full speech.

Fisher, as an alternate member of the Fed's policy-making Open Market Committee last year, did not vote on the 2007 rate cuts. But he will be a committee member this year. So his opinions are worth paying attention to.

He warned that the Fed still has only two mandates, fostering price stability and supporting economic growth. Keeping the markets happy is not a new third mandate.

"Our job is not to bail out imprudent decisionmakers or errant bankers, nor is it to directly support the stock market or to somehow make whole those money managers, financial engineers and real estate speculators who got it wrong. And it most definitely is not to err on the side of Wall Street at the expense of Main Street," he said.

He reminded everyone that rate cuts don't work instantly, which is why the Fed needs to proceed cautiously.

"The act of changing or not changing the fed funds target rate, in and of itself, has no immediate effect on the economy. Like a good single malt whiskey, the ameliorating or stimulating influence kicks in only with a lag."

And most importantly, he stressed how crucial it is for the Fed to not go overboard in response to current doom and gloom headlines.

"We must be mindful that short-term fixes often lead to long-term problems," Fisher said.

One can only hope that other Fed members are listening more closely to Fisher's words of wisdom than the market's panic-stricken calls for another huge rate cut.

What do you think? Is the market pushing the Fed around? To top of page

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