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Behind the Scenes, Fed Chief Advocates Bigger Role

During the debate over financial regulation, the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, has been surprisingly quiet.

Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Ben Bernanke
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Ben Bernanke

But behind the scenes, he has been a forceful proponent of giving the Fed more power, both defending his management of the economic crisis and arguing that more authority would help the agency act more decisively to reduce the chances of a recurrence, according to interviews with lawmakers and officials from the Fed, the Treasury and the White House.

Despite criticism by some lawmakers that the Fed failed to anticipate the problems that led to the crisis, Mr. Bernanke has told associates that such critics fail to recognize the extraordinary actions taken by the central bank over the last year.

Mr. Bernanke believes the Fed’s actions have played a major role in averting a possible second Great Depression, according to government officials who know his thinking. Those steps, the Fed chairman has told these people, demonstrate that the agency is up to the larger task assigned to it by the Obama administration.

Mr. Bernanke has one important champion — President Obama. On Tuesday, the president reinforced his preference for an enlarged role for the Fed in a news conference at the White House.

The administration’s proposals for a regulatory overhaul are built around the idea “that there’s got to be somebody who is responsible not just for monitoring the health of individual institutions, but somebody who’s monitoring the systemic risks of the system as a whole,” Mr. Obama said. “And we believe that the Fed has the most technical expertise and the best track record in terms of doing that.”

He said that while the Fed was not blameless, it was not fair to single it out for failing to avert the crisis.

“I think that the Fed probably performed better than most other regulators prior to the crisis taking place, but I think they’d be the first to acknowledge that in dealing with systemic risk and anticipating systemic risk, they didn’t do everything that needed to be done,” Mr. Obama said.

The president and Mr. Bernanke do not, however, see eye-to-eye over whether to create a Consumer Financial Protection Agency, part of which would be carved out of the Fed’s existing jurisdiction over mortgages and credit cards.

Breaking ranks with the administration, Mr. Bernanke is expected to tell Congress that the Fed would prefer to keep the responsibility for consumer lending. He is also expected to promise a stronger emphasis on consumer debt issues in the future.

Mr. Bernanke’s surrogate in the debate has been the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, who in Congressional testimony, speeches and interviews has praised the Federal Reserve’s performance.

(Mr. Geithner’s views may also have reflected his pedigree. He joined the administration after serving five years as president of the New York Federal Reserve, where he worked closely with Mr. Bernanke.)

Mr. Bernanke has been reluctant to get involved in the political debate, but has argued to associates and lawmakers that the often-mentioned alternative of a council supervising the largest firms would not be nimble or accountable enough.

He also has said that the plan is not a radical departure from the Fed’s current role. The Fed is already the umbrella supervisor of virtually all of Wall Street’s largest institutions, and the Obama plan would add only a handful of new companies to the Fed’s oversight list. The Fed so far has not specified which companies it would add to its purview, but once it decides, it is expected to make the list public.

The biggest impact, government officials said, is not in the number of institutions the Fed regulates, but in how it regulates them. It will have to go beyond measuring the financial safety of institutions to examining their connections to other firms and markets, and the dangers those connections could pose.

By possibly requiring the largest institutions to hold more capital against losses or to reduce the amount of debt they carry, for example, the Fed could make firms less profitable and less competitive with their smaller rivals. That in turn could prompt some of the largest institutions to decide to shrink, either by borrowing and lending less, or selling off units.

Fed officials said they expected that new capital requirements would be tailored to the risks and strengths of each bank.

They and top administration officials disagree that the Fed’s new authority amounts to overseeing “too big to fail” banks. Under the plan, the government would have explicit authority to seize any faltering institution that was judged an unacceptable risk to the overall financial system. As a result, the government would not have to guarantee creditors 100 cents on the dollar — and “too big to fail” would no longer be the default policy.

That breaks from the practice of last year, when creditors to the American International Group , Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were repaid in full because Mr. Bernanke and Henry M. Paulson Jr., then the Treasury secretary, did not think the government had the legal authority to shut down nonbank institutions, or to choose which loans to repay in full and which to discount.

Mr. Bernanke has also told people that he finds it illogical that some lawmakers are citing the Fed’s failure years ago to curtail deceptive or abusive subprime loans as the reason for their objections to the administration’s plan.

Stretched too thin?

In recent months, a series of new regulations issued by the Fed on mortgages and credit card policies issued under Mr. Bernanke have generally been applauded by consumer groups and some lawmakers, although Congress recently passed a law, which President Obama signed, to add some features. The new law requires banks and card companies to give 45 days’ notice before a change in interest rates and prohibits them from raising rates on existing balances unless a card holder falls 60 days behind on minimum payments.

Some critics have raised other concerns — that the Fed is stretching itself too thin, or compromising the political independence that is essential for setting monetary policy.

“The plan does give more power to the Fed and just complicates its job and therefore raises questions about its ultimate mission,” said John B. Taylor, a professor of economics at Stanford and a Treasury under secretary in the Bush administration. His book, “The Road Ahead for the Fed,” (Hoover Institution Press) is being published this week. “If the Fed goes further off its course and doesn’t focus on what it did in the 1980s and 1990s, it will have less control over inflation. It will lose its independence. It will have to become more political.”

Vincent R. Reinhart, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and former director of the Fed’s division of monetary affairs, said that policy makers needed to be concerned about mission creep.

“The main problem in becoming the systemic risk regulator is that it can be a very diffuse responsibility,” Mr. Reinhart said. “Should the Federal Reserve have been monitoring Enron and Long Term Capital Management and the Hunt brothers when they were involved in silver market manipulation?”

He added: “What is the ideal governor of the Fed supposed to be, someone who understands monetary policy, systemic risk, bank regulation, consumer affairs and Congressional relations? You are reaching the point where the agency is being spread pretty thin.”

Mr. Bernanke’s views, which have evolved as the financial crisis has unfolded, contrast markedly with those of his predecessor. Alan Greenspan, who said last year in his book “The Age of Turbulence” that the idea of the Fed as a systemwide regulator was “mission impossible.”

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