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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

July 21, 2009 at 10:00 AM

Ten questions we’d really like to have Bernanke answer

Top of the News: Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is testifying before Congress today. It’s the usual snoozer that will get little attention unless he says something like “run for the bomb shelters, your bank accounts are worthless!” Here are some questions I wish could be answered for We the People:

1. Why has the Federal Reserve been so secretive about the real amount and the beneficiaries of perhaps trillions of dollars in lending facilities and other assistance beyond the TARP program? Who are these institutions and how did they use the money? How do you respond to the inspector general’s report that the liabilities are $23.7 trillion, the program has been badly monitored and much of it was used by banks, not to lend but to grow bigger?

(after Bernanke recovers from fainting and is hauled back into the witness chair)…

2. Was the Fed stupid or complicit in failing to see the risks from the housing bubble and take appropriate regulatory and monetary action? This is a simple question, Mr. Chairman.

3. Did you and President Bush’s Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson (and then New York Fed President Tim Geithner, now Treasury secretary) stampede this Congress into the poorly crafted bailout last fall? Why, more than a year after the August 2007 swoon, didn’t the Fed and Treasury have a more thoughtful, effective and accountable emergency strategy in place?

4. So Bear, Sterns and Lehman Brothers just snuck up on you? Does this show that the Fed is A) Captive of the conventional economic wisdom that brought on the crash, and/or B) Captive of the most powerful Wall Street institutions? And while we’re on the subject, tell us again about who made the decisions about who would live and die, Bear vs. Lehman, and the consequences for the economy?

(Chairman Bernanke passes out again. Is given a cold glass of water, his tie loosened, and replaced in the chair)…

5. Does this “exit strategy” to avoid turning the massive monetary stimulus into inflation take into account the still large debt overhang on the American economy, the trillions in dollars and debt held by China and the petro-states, and China’s efforts to replace the dollar as the world’s reserve currency? Or will that be another Lehman-like oops moment?

6. You are America’s foremost scholar on Federal Reserve policy during the Great Depression. Are you concerned that today we have not established a Pecora Commission, which in the 1930s called the “banksters” to account and laid the groundwork for regulation that avoided a repeat of the disaster until it was repealed in 1999?

7. Why did you allow institutions that are already so large that they pose a systemic risk to the entire economy to grow even larger during the crisis, thanks in part to taxpayer money?

8. Foreclosures continue to increase and Congress has done nothing to help average house owners — it’s done as little as possible to stop predatory credit-card practices. Meanwhile unemployment keeps rising. Wages have gone from stagnation to retreat and many Americans have lost their retirement nest eggs. This is very different from the Depression, when the banks were tightly reined in and average people received help if they needed it. Do you believe it’s sustainable to have a coddled financialized economy on the one hand, and a struggling, deindustrialized average American economy on the other?

9. Why did federal regulators allow Goldman Sachs, an investment bank, to become a bank holding company? As you more than anyone knows, this violates the hard-won wisdom of the Depression, where investment and commercial banks were separated to prevent a repeat of the 1920s speculation. Doesn’t this add considerable risk to the system, including the FDIC? Are you concerned about moral hazard, as Goldman ramps up its “innovations” — now with the sure knowledge that taxpayers will foot the bill for any big mistake? It’s now clear that Goldman was not in deep trouble last fall — it had made a killing on the bubble, then sold short to make more on the crash. Did regulators realize this?

(The Chairman tries to run from the hearing room, stumbles over a staffer).

10. Any vacation plans?

Today’s Econ Haiku:

It seems in the bag

Special interest cash to keep

Plastic free from fees

Comments | More in Bailout, Banking

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