Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is proving to be a quick study in navigating a treacherous housing slump and credit crisis that could push the economy into a recession.
He also seems to be learning fast on an equally perilous course – avoiding political land mines in Washington.
For three hours, Bernanke skillfully parried questions from Democrats and Republicans on the House Financial Services Committee who were trying to score political points. Not once did he stumble.
Alan Greenspan, whose congressional appearances became the stuff of legend, would have been proud.
And unlike Greenspan, who often resorted to his famously opaque language to avoid direct answers to questions he wanted to avoid, Bernanke did it all with simple declarative sentences that did not leave his listeners pondering what he might have meant.
That doesn’t mean he gave either side all that they were looking for during Wednesday’s hearing. But both sides could come away with comments that they believed bolstered their side of the argument.
Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., praised Bernanke for going further than any Fed chairman in the past 28 years in willingness to pursue regulatory changes to protect consumers.
In his testimony, Bernanke said the Fed was pushing ahead with new regulations to protect against abuses in credit cards and mortgage lending and announced a new initiative to put forward rules to clamp down on unfair and deceptive practices by some credit-card companies.
The Fed’s efforts are seen as a response to heavy criticism that lax regulation by the Fed and other banking agencies contributed to what is viewed as the epicenter of the country’s current economic problems – the meltdown in subprime mortgages, loans offered to people with weak credit histories.
Frank is putting together a package of proposals aimed at combating an expected tidal wave of mortgage foreclosures.
Congressional Democrats are examining such ideas as having the government buy $15 billion in troubled mortgages, changing bankruptcy laws to allow judges to modify home mortgage loans to more favorable terms and providing assistance to state and local governments to help buy foreclosed properties.
Republicans on the committee sought to get Bernanke, a Republican who was appointed Fed chairman by President Bush after having served as Bush’s top economic adviser, to denounce these ideas as unwarranted government intrusions into the marketplace that would end up making it harder and more expensive to get mortgages in the future.
Bernanke, however, refused to take the bait, using far milder language to describe the Democratic ideas. While not endorsing any of the approaches, he didn’t denounce them, either.
“I certainly welcome and I commend . . . Chairman Frank and others for thinking about these issues,” he said. “They’re very, very difficult ones.”
Bernanke said at the moment he was only willing to endorse proposals also backed by the Bush administration to expand the ability of the Federal Housing Administration to help more low-income borrowers and to overhaul the regulatory structure of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
But Bernanke added, “We are certainly open, you know, to the possibility and continue to look at alternatives” that would help deal with the mortgage crisis.
To some, Bernanke’s maneuvering has as much to do with the political calendar as it does with economics.
Bernanke, who was appointed when Republicans controlled Congress, will come to the end of his first term in early 2010, when a new president, possibly a Democrat, will be in the White House and the Senate, which must confirm his nomination, could still be controlled by Democrats.
Given that Bernanke can’t know the outcome of the November elections, it would make sense not to aggravate Democrats or Republicans at the moment.
Greenspan, who was nominated by Ronald Reagan and went on to serve two more Republican presidents and one Democrat – Bill Clinton – excelled at this type of political maneuvering, although he sometimes was criticized when his repositioning seemed to go against his previous stands on issues.
Republicans attacked him in 1993 when he sat with Hillary Clinton as her husband delivered his first speech before a joint session of Congress, putting forward an economic plan to deal with budget deficits that included tax increases on higher-income taxpayers, a position that was anathema to the GOP.
In 2001, when a Republican president was taking Clinton’s place, it was the Democrats who complained when Greenspan, a longtime supporter of efforts to deal with budget deficits, suddenly embraced Bush’s $1.3 trillion tax-cut program, providing critical support that helped it win congressional approval.
But friends say Greenspan, who served as Fed chairman for 18 1/2 years, understood that a Fed chairman needed both political and economic skills.
“Greenspan once told me that it was just as important for a Fed chairman to be politically savvy as to understand how monetary policy works,” remembers David Jones, chief economist at DMJ Advisors and the author of four books on the Fed.
Martin Crutsinger has covered economics and the Federal Reserve for The Associated Press since 1984.