President Bush's choice to head the Federal Reserve is promising both continuity and independence.
WASHINGTON — Promising both continuity and independence, President Bush’s choice to head the Federal Reserve began defining Tuesday what sort of helmsman he’d be for the world’s largest economy.
Ben Bernanke, Bush’s chief economic adviser, used his confirmation hearing before the Senate Banking Committee to signal lawmakers, Wall Street and foreigners holding U.S. debt that he’d stay the course set during Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s 18-year tenure, which will end Jan. 31.
But Bernanke, 51, a distinguished former Princeton University economist, also made clear he would be his own man.
“I assure this committee that, if I am confirmed, I will be strictly independent of all political influences,” Bernanke said, stressing that the Fed’s independence is “essential to that institution’s ability to function effectively and achieve its mandated objectives.”
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Presidents and lawmakers sometimes try to influence Fed decisions about interest rates for short-term political gain. President George H.W. Bush once blamed his failed 1992 re-election bid on Greenspan for resisting his call for deeper interest-rate reductions.
Senators tried Tuesday to lead Bernanke into confirming their own views on issues from tax cuts to deficits to trade, but he declined to be led, politely hewing to his own lines.
If confirmed as expected, Bernanke would exercise considerable influence over the lives of everyday Americans. The Fed’s policy-making committee sets interbank rates that serve as the benchmark for rates charged on mortgages, car loans, credit cards and certificates of deposit.
In the spotlight
Since becoming the head of the White House Council of Economic Advisers in June, Bernanke generally has avoided the spotlight. Tuesday’s hearing offered the first in-depth public exposure of his views on economic topics.
Regarding high gasoline and natural-gas prices, for example, he acknowledged they’ve driven inflation to undesirable levels. But Bernanke cautioned the Fed can do little more than try to contain it through interest-rate increases. Since “monetary policy can’t create more energy, it can’t really solve the energy problem,” he said.
Bernanke also testified “there are better measures of inflation” than the widely used Consumer Price Index for all Urban Consumers, or CPI-U, which many economists think overstates inflation.
This view is significant, because the CPI-U is the gauge government benefits such as Social Security are adjusted by each year, and it also affects the standard deduction from federal income taxes.
If it overstates inflation, that means the government is overpaying retirement benefits and not fully collecting taxes due.
Bernanke supports changing the inflation measure but didn’t endorse a specific alternative. However, lending his stature as Fed chief to such a move could provide cover to politicians looking to reduce promised Social Security benefits or to raise revenues.
On another front, Bernanke defended setting explicit targets for inflation, contending that doing so would inform public expectations of inflation and thus influence private-sector wage and price decisions. That stance put him at odds with Greenspan, who prefers less rigid targets that leave more room for flexible policies.
Bernanke defended inflation targets as an “incremental step” toward greater transparency in Fed decision-making, but said he wouldn’t impose them — or any other mathematical model — in a way that would run the U.S. economy on autopilot.
“I do not subscribe to any rigid or mechanical role in policymaking,” he said.
He sparred with Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., who used charts to show how the European Union’s central bank had adopted inflation targets and now suffers slow growth and high unemployment.
Bernanke shot back that European tax and labor laws are to blame, not inflation targets.
His nomination comes as the federal budget and U.S. trade deficits have exploded, a four-year housing boom appears to be slowing and foreigners, led by Japan and China, hold a record amount of American debt.
Bernanke didn’t appear overly worried about the latter.
“I don’t expect to see major shifts in that appetite,” he testified, giving no support to analysts who fear that foreigners may precipitously cut back on buying American assets, forcing U.S. interest rates to rise to lure them back; and possibly throwing the economy into recession.