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After fed, Bernanke offers his wisdom, for a big fee

Alexandra Stevenson

On Tuesday, Ben S. Bernanke spoke in Abu Dhabi; on Wednesday, he was in Johannesburg. By Friday, he was in Houston. That week in March was a particularly busy one for Mr. Bernanke, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve.

During his eight years as steward of the world's largest economy, Mr. Bernanke's salary was about $200,000 a year. Now he makes that in just a few hours speaking to bankers, hedge fund billionaires and leaders of industry. This year alone, he is poised to make millions of dollars from speaking engagements.

Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Mr. Bernanke is following a well-trodden path that his predecessor, Alan S. Greenspan, and other Washington policy makers have taken. On the speaking circuit, he is putting just one foot through the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street, being paid by financial firms but not employed by one.

Investors are dealing with an economy that is in large part the creature of Fed policies under Mr. Bernanke, and they are willing to pay top dollar for his words of wisdom as a result.

Mr. Bernanke has agreed to speak with a Middle Eastern bank, private equity firms and trade associations, as well as at investment bank get-togethers, charging his hosts fees that range from $200,000 in the United States and $400,000 for engagements in Asia. While he has dined with hedge fund managers at small events arranged by investment and brokerage firms including JPMorgan Chase, some Wall Street firms have balked at the high fees.

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"Chairman Bernanke decided after he left office, like most good civil servants, that he wanted to make a little bit of money and did the dinner circuit," Michael E. Novogratz, a principal of Fortress Investment Group, told an audience of wealth managers at a conference in Las Vegas last week.

At his first of several dinners after retiring from the Fed in March, Mr. Bernanke spoke to a group of hedge fund managers, including Mr. Novogratz, at Le Bernardin in Midtown Manhattan. The setting was so intimate that the group took up just one of the four-star restaurant's three private dining rooms.

"At those dinners he gave credence to the idea that the Fed believed in lower potential G.D.P. and lower potential inflation," Mr. Novogratz said.

Bernanke earns at least $250,000 in first speech post Fed

"I think that got through to the market and that was kind of the accelerator of this giant trade in fixed income that has happened," he added, referring to an unexpected rally in government bonds. The market has rallied this year as investors, concerned that the economy will not grow as fast as expected, have sought safer assets like Treasury securities.

"I think that the markets and investors will put more credence on what Bernanke says," said David Rosenberg, chief economist and strategist at Gluskin Sheff. Referring to Mr. Bernanke's successor, Janet L. Yellen, Mr. Rosenberg added, "There is a pervasive belief that Bernanke and Yellen are joined at the hip."

David A. Tepper, founder of the $20 billion hedge fund Appaloosa Management, who was also at the Le Bernardin dinner, expressed regret that he did not trade on Mr. Bernanke's guidance at the dinner.

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"He gave this stuff out, but I didn't realize what he was saying at the time, so I didn't do a great trade," Mr. Tepper said at the conference in Las Vegas last week.

For many investors, the big question is when and how quickly interest rates will rise. Some Wall Street firms like BTIG, the institutional brokerage firm that organized the Le Bernardin dinner, offer their top clients private dinners with important former officials like Mr. Bernanke to try to differentiate their offerings from those of their rivals.

But others are consciously passing up the opportunity to hire Mr. Bernanke. UBS and Goldman Sachs considered his fees too high, according to two people briefed on the discussions between Mr. Bernanke's representative and the banks but not authorized to speak about either publicly.

The transition from Bernanke to Yellen

It is not unusual for senior government officials to join the speaking circuit or take lucrative jobs in the private sector after leaving public office.

Mr. Greenspan was hired to consult for the hedge fund Paulson & Company, Deutsche Bank, and the bond investment firm Pacific Investment Management Company after stepping down as Fed chairman. After leaving the top job at Treasury, Timothy F. Geithner joined the private equity firm Warburg Pincus.

And Mr. Bernanke is free to speak about his views on the economy as long as he does not breach any confidentiality agreement.

"If they are saying something that they were saying as a public official, is there something wrong with that?" Mr. Greenspan said.

Since his busy week jetting around the world in March, Mr. Bernanke has made several other appearances, including at a private equity conference hosted by the Blackstone Group a few weeks ago. He is scheduled to speak in Pennsylvania at the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce's annual event on May 28, where members will pay $225 for a ticket.

Then things will pick up again for the former Fed chairman in the fall, when he is scheduled to speak at the SALT hedge fund conference in Singapore. Morgan Stanley is in discussions with Mr. Bernanke to have him also speak at a dinner on the sidelines of the conference.

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In November, over the span of two weeks, he is to give keynote speeches at a series of events in the United States, hosted by the Association for Financial Professionals; the Schwab Impact conference; and the Commercial Finance Association.

Though Mr. Bernanke has been busy traveling these days, he spends most of his time as an economic studies fellow at the Brookings Institution and is working on a book about his time at the Fed.

He also delivers pro bono speeches and does not always pocket all the fees, a spokeswoman for Mr. Bernanke at the Brookings Institution said. "In addition, he is donating hundreds of thousands to charity," she added.

The Washington Speakers Bureau, which coordinates Mr. Bernanke's speaking engagements, did not return calls.

Not everyone agrees with the fees that Mr. Bernanke charges.

"You can spend $250,000 for Bernanke's time at a private dinner, or you could just sit down and read what people like Janet Yellen and Mark Carney have to say," Mr. Rosenberg said, referring to the governor of the Bank of England. "You can actually do that for free and pretty much draw the same conclusions."