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Wednesday February 1, 2006 - 18:15:59 GMT
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Soooo Over Greenspan

I am already a Bernanke fan. Why? I am soooo over Greenspan. Don't get me wrong. I have loads of respect and admiration for Greenspan, and his track record to date speaks volumes about his competence. I was just never a Greenspan sycophant. I think his style was autocratic. He fostered an oracle-like image, helped by his use of arcane and cumbersome language, and through careful control over who was allowed into the inner sanctum (few really). I find idolization repugnant. I tend to respect those that are really good, like Greenspan, but do not take themselves so seriously, unlike Greenspan. The only self-deprecating aspect of this man was his body language. Just looking at him one gets the sense that he does not take himself too seriously. But he never did anything to deter the media or markets from worshiping at his alter. And his skill at maneuvering through Washington's social calendar irrespective of what party held the White House is more befitting a K-Street lobbyist than the Chairman of the Fed. Which by the way I believe led him down the darkest path by backing controversial fiscal policies in recent years.

But 18 years and near total control over arguably the most important job in the country, and on the planet, after President of the USA, Greenspan has evolved into a cult-like figure...even Chairman Mao would have been envious. Senator McCain once said if Greenspan were to die while Fed Chairman just put on some sunglasses and prop him up like the movie "Weekend at Bernie's". Everyone thought it was funny and many thought it was true.

Well I am for term limits for Fed Chairmen/Chairwomen/Chairpeople. It is not an elected office and it is a far more important job today than imagined under the Federal Reserve Act. Eight is enough...eight years.

Bernanke is a breath of fresh air. He is not only better than a propped up, shade wearing Bernie, he may be better than Greenspan. He will show quickly that more than one guy/gal can do the job competently. And Gentle Ben will not be at all interested in fostering a cult of personality. I suspect too that the FOMC will be an arena for debate and ideas (emphasis on plural) and not mainly a rubber stamp for the Chairman. Sure Bernanke may start out asserting his view to get the troops in line. But this his Chairmanship will be more about building the institution's image and dismantling the cult of personality the outgoing Chairman has left.

And Bernanke is picking up the reins when the outlook for rates and the economy is the most uncertain since the Fed started tightening in June 2004. With funds more or less at neutral, the rate decisions ahead will be dependent on the data. His credentials exceed any of those Greenspan had (talking resume) in 1989 when President Reagan named him to succeed Paul Volcker.

As such I see three distinct paths that the new Chairman will have to steer policy down, depending on the data.

Starting from the least likely to most likely...

1/ A general equilibrium has been reached and will be sustained. Fed funds are at a nominal and real rate that perfectly balances aggregate supply and demand, and one can expect a sustainable growth rate for many quarters to come. Bernanke has nothing to do on rates and can use his season tickets for the Senators.

2/ The lagged effect of 14 hikes, energy inflation tax, future asset market dislocation/s (real estate, dlr, credit markets, stocks) lead Bernanke and the Fed to adopt an accommodative stance (burden of proof and at least 3 quarters of data away, though financial shock could bring this forward).

3/ There is enough juice in the economy to push Bernanke and the Fed toward restrictive policy from neutral (burden of proof is 1 to 2 quarters of data anyway). This presupposes relatively benign capital market problems, soft landing in real estate and continued healthy doses of household and firm consumption.

In all of the above scenarios, I am confident Bernanke will get the path and the policy prescription correct. What worries me most is that it may not matter...imbalances are far larger than a blunt set of policy tools can cope with. And at the end of the day an economy immune to Fed policy treatment will be the Greenspan credit chasing too few assets...multiple bubbles bursting and significant wealth destruction. In some respects the conundrum Greenspan can't figure out is really in part a function of his own creation...the cult of the personality. Markets believe that the Fed has reduced risk across asset classes.

David Gilmore


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