Bernanke's $1 trillion hangover
The Fed chief or his successor will have to wind down the massive supply of new money without sending the economy into a double dip.
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WASHINGTON (Fortune) -- Business legend Jack Welch has already hailed Ben Bernanke as "a national hero" for the Federal Reserve chief's aggressive moves to pump up the economy, but Bernanke's work is not nearly finished. One of the factors that will influence the decision whether to reappoint him when his term ends in January is the nature of the next task facing him or his successor: to wean the economy off the $1 trillion of new money created by the Fed when disaster loomed last fall.
Like much of what the Fed has had to accomplish recently, it's a scenario without precedent since the Great Depression. And that time, the delicate operation was botched.
"Your timing has to be perfect," says David Jones, former Fed economist and president and CEO of DMJ Advisors LLC in Denver. "If you do it too soon, you keep us in a deep recession. And if you do it too late, you get inflation."
To make the best decision about whom to appoint, President Obama will have to consider not only who has the best command of monetary policy, but also who has the most mettle. Any decision to raise short-term interest rates can make the Fed chair very unpopular. "Your next act is not to refill the punch bowl," says Rob Parenteau, an economic consultant who owns the firm MacroStrategy Edge. "You're going to be taking it away, and you're going to be making a lot of enemies as you do that."
The argument for Bernanke goes like this: he's already on the job, and he also happens to be one of the greatest living scholars of the Great Depression, which is basically a road map for how a central bank should not run monetary policy. One of the lessons of that crisis is that shutting off the monetary spigot too soon can stop a recovery in its tracks. In 1936-37, the central bank started withdrawing excess reserves. This, combined with FDR's decision to raise taxes and cut spending, sent the economy into another tailspin.
Bernanke has indicated that he understands the art of timing. During testimony before Congress's Joint Economic Committee in May, he explained, "I just want to assure the American people that we are very focused, like a laser beam ... on this issue of the exit and of making sure that we have price stability in the medium term."
He added, "It's very important for us to provide a lot of support for this economy right now because it needs support, but at the same time we understand the necessity of winding this down in an orderly way at the appropriate moment so that we will not have inflation problems on the other side."
Bernanke and others at the Federal Reserve are saying inflation will not be a problem in the near future. But investors are already signaling their concern. Ten-year Treasury bond yields hit an eight-month peak in June.
"[The Fed's] models may tell them inflation's not a headache for two or three years but it doesn't matter if investors think it could be a nearer term problem," says Parenteau. "If commodity prices begin to reflect that, you've got a problem on your hands"
The question is whether Wall Street trusts Bernanke to do whatever it takes to avoid the inflation problem. Larry Summers, Obama's top economic adviser and former Treasury secretary, is often floated as another possible Fed chair. People who like that idea view his reputation for a strong will as an asset in a situation like this.
"People may view Summers as more able and willing to execute whatever tightening needs to be done on the Fed funds rate," says Parenteau, "whereas they're used to thinking of Bernanke as 'Helicopter Ben,' where he comes along with the helicopter and opens the suitcase and lets the money fly."
On the other hand, Summers' close ties to the White House could create the impression that political pressure would be brought to bear on him to err on the side of economic growth, rather than inflation-fighting.
Regardless who gets appointed, one thing is certain: this unelected corner of government has never had more power. The Obama administration's proposal to give the Fed more authority to regulate big financial institutions comes at the same time its monetary decisions will decide the economy's fate. And yet all the authority in the world may not be enough to stop the after-effects of injecting such a megadose of money into the system. Some think inflation is inevitable.
"It doesn't matter who you appoint. It doesn't change the fact you're sitting there with a trillion dollars in excess reserves," says Thomas Saving, an economics professor at Texas A&M University and director of the Private Enterprise Research Center. "An appointment doesn't change any of that. That's reality."