Bernanke's steady hand
Americans looking for a steady hand through the fiscal storm found one in Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. And the pharmacist's son from Dillon rates overall high marks in any fair grading of his eight-year tenure as the nation's top central banker, which will end when he steps down at the end of this month to return to teaching at Princeton.
Two years into his chairmanship, Mr. Bernanke and his colleagues faced an historically dire situation that forced him to take extraordinary actions to minimize the damage of a meltdown in the financial realm.
Credit, the life blood of the economy, began to dry up at an alarming rate in the fall of 2008 due to the collapse of a short-term credit system based on mortgage-backed securities whose value was falling even more rapidly than the value of the houses backing them.
In a recent speech, Mr. Bernanke acknowledged that he and the nation's other top financial experts were surprised by the sudden crisis. But under his leadership they quickly took the Fed into uncharted waters. For the first time they offered loans on easy terms not only to commercial banks but also to investment banks, money market funds, and other key financial markets.
At a time when the U.S. Congress was struggling to pass $1.6 trillion in emergency legislation to help banks, insurance firms, struggling auto companies, state governments and national infrastructure projects, the Fed under Mr. Bernanke's leadership quietly pumped even more, $1.7 trillion, into the economy to lubricate credit markets and keep the economy from going into freefall.
Without this transfusion, the economy would have suffered a much worse decline. To speed the recovery, the Fed has continued to use unorthodox methods to pump another $1.5 trillion in credit into the economy, keeping interest rates low in hopes that markets would respond with new investments and create new jobs.
Those hopes have been only partly fulfilled. Some argue that businesses, although flush with cash, are reluctant to invest in the United States because of the increasing complexity of government regulation. Others, including Mr. Bernanke, point to weak demand, caused in part by a contraction in government employment at the local, state and national levels in response to falling revenues. That contraction is now easing.
Yes, Mr. Bernanke's policy of pumping money into the economy by buying Treasury bonds at an unprecedented rate has raised justified concerns about its potential to devalue the dollar.
But he announced last month that the Fed is gradually reducing the amount of those purchases due to encouraging economic signs.
Though experts will continue to debate Mr. Bernanke's performance as Fed head, there's no dispute about the huge challenges he faced - or his consistent appeals that Congress and the president get America's fiscal house in long-term order.
Yet throughout his time as Fed chair, he exercised needed restraint - and reassurance - in his public statements.
The job of getting the Fed more fully out of the crisis management business now falls to Mr. Bernanke's successor, Janet Yellen, confirmed by the Senate on Monday.
As she takes on that crucial task, she can point to some encouraging signs: The Labor Department announced Friday that in December unemployment dropped to its lowest level in more than five years - 6.7 percent.
And though alarming declines in labor-force participation continued last month, the U.S. economy is growing again - 4.1 percent in revised figures from the third quarter of 2013.
Those positive trends owe much to Chairman Bernanke's stable leadership while guiding the Fed - and the nation - through the fiscal storm.