One of the telling contradictions of neoliberalism was that an ideology committed to regularizing the governance of capitalism elevated an elite group of central bankers into the guarantors of world prosperity. In the midst of an aestheticized, picket-fence vision of the economic order stand the ‘maestros’ of monetary policy. Mario Draghi at the ecb plays the part to perfection. At the Bank of England, the arrival of square-jawed Mark Carney as successor to the more intemperate Mervyn King was greeted with rapture by the Financial Times. But the spiritual home and high temple of the new cult is the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, dc. Although it was Carter appointee Paul Volcker who mercilessly hiked interest rates in 1979 and withstood the lure of spendthrift Reaganomics to break inflation, the media sanctification really began with his successor. Reagan appointee Alan Greenspan rode out the crisis of 1987 and presided over the first tech boom in the 1990s. During the course of the Mexican (1994), Asian (1997) and Russian (1998) financial crises, Greenspan, along with Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, the ex-ceo of Goldman Sachs, and their Harvard sidekick Lawrence Summers, headed what Time magazine breathlessly dubbed the ‘Committee to Save the World’. When the dot.com bubble burst in 2000, Greenspan dropped interest rates until Wall Street revived.
In February 2006, Greenspan passed the baton to Ben Bernanke, a somewhat colourless figure whom few at the time thought capable of the Mage’s charisma. Yet Bernanke would go on to match his predecessor’s celebrity; Time proclaimed him Man of the Year in 2009. Bernanke earned the accolade for the role he played in taming the great crisis that swept across the global financial system from the summer of 2007. This time the ‘Committee to Save the World’ consisted of Bernanke as chair of the Federal Reserve, Hank Paulson—Bush’s Treasury Secretary and, like Rubin, a former ceo of Goldman Sachs—and Tim Geithner, the president of the New York Fed, who would succeed Paulson as Treasury Secretary under Obama. All three have now produced crisis memoirs. Paulson’s On the Brink appeared in 2010, ghost written by Michael Carroll, a former editor of Institutional Investor. Paulson himself, with an estimated net worth of $700m, had returned to private life in 2009 and now has an eponymous institute at the University of Chicago. Geithner soldiered on as Treasury Secretary until Obama’s re-election. During a brief furlough at Brookings before joining a private equity firm, Geithner compiled the revealing Stress Test with the help of Time journalist Michael Grunwald, published in 2014. Earlier that year, Bernanke retired from the Fed and was also welcomed onto the Brookings roster. His memoir, The Courage to Act, penned with the help of Fed publicist and former Associated Press reporter David Skidmore, was released in October 2015—the month in which its author signed up as an advisor to the Citadel hedge fund and pimco, the embattled bond-trading giant.
The three works share common features of the crisis-memoir genre. Each has a dramatic opening scene—Paulson: the Oval Office, 4 September 2008, telling Bush about the coming take-over of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; Geithner: the Oval Office, January 2009, his first day as Obama’s Treasury Secretary; Bernanke: the Federal Reserve building, 16 September 2008, putting out a press release on the aig bailout. In each case, this is followed by a flash-back cursus vitae, bringing us up to the start of the crisis in 2007. All three are at pains to stress that they were not to Wall Street born. Paulson grew up in a farming family, played football at Dartmouth and whirled through junior posts at the Pentagon and Nixon’s White House before joining Goldman Sachs and pioneering its Chinese investment. Geithner’s childhood was spent in Asia in the itinerant family of a Ford Foundation official. Via Dartmouth he moved to Kissinger Associates, before joining the Treasury international desk as an East Asianist, becoming a protégé of Summers and Rubin.
Of the three, Bernanke had perhaps the greatest distance to travel to the top of American power. Of Central European Jewish descent, growing up in the 1960s as the son of small-town pharmacists in segregated South Carolina, the young Bernanke—at least on his own telling—stumbled naively into Harvard. From there he joined the prestigious economics PhD programme at mit, where he imbibed the gospel of monetarism from its eminence gris, Stanley Fischer. At the midpoint of a stolidly distinguished if not spectacular academic career, devoted mainly to the Great Depression and central-bank monetary-policy frameworks, Bernanke was hoisted out of Princeton’s economics department by the Bush Administration to bolster Greenspan’s depleted Federal Reserve board. His experience there was enough to persuade him to abandon academia for good. In 2005, Bernanke proved his loyalty to the Republican cause by shifting from the Fed to the West Wing, as chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors. From there he was chosen to succeed Greenspan in February 2006, ahead of such key figures of the new right as Martin Feldstein, Reagan’s chief economic sage, and Glenn Hubbard, architect of Bush’s tax cuts. A small-town boy made good, Bernanke found his place amongst the monetary technicians, applied economists and provincial banking bigwigs who staff the national Federal Reserve system, whiling away the lonesome Washington nights watching re-runs of Seinfeld.
The world of the Washington Fed is not to be confused with the more glamorous and go-getting Wall Street crowd, who have set the tone at the us Treasury since the 1990s. It was there that Geithner cut his teeth, before Rubin and Summers recommended him for the New York Fed in 2003. As neither a banker nor an economist, Geithner owed his position to these connections and the force of his notoriously foul-mouthed persona. It gave him an extraordinary vantage point from which to build relationships on Wall Street, not least with Goldman’s Paulson, who reluctantly accepted the Treasury position in the lame-duck Bush Administration in the summer of 2006. As he describes in Stress Test, Geithner’s apprenticeship at Treasury in the 1990s had been dominated by international crisis fighting. In New York in the early 2000s, he, Paulson and several key staff at Goldman had already begun to worry about the stability of the derivatives market, he claims. But when Paulson set up shop in dc, the Treasury had no capacity to monitor the American financial markets in real time.
At the Fed too, oblivious routine prevailed in the early stages of Bernanke’s chairmanship, as subprime lending peaked. The Fed’s activity remained dominated by the ritual of Board meetings, interest-rate decisions and the terms of its legal mandate, which since the 1970s have specified a dual responsibility for both ‘maximum employment’ and ‘price stability’. In the early 1980s, Volcker ignored surging unemployment to combat inflation, which peaked at nearly 15 per cent in March 1980. But by the 1990s, with organized labour crushed and inflation under control, fine-tuning was the order of the day. It was almost as though the anti-Keynesian revolution of the 1970s had never happened. By manipulating interest rates, the Fed would egg the economy on when growth faltered and rein it in when it threatened to run ‘too hot’. This was a seat-of-the-pants business, animated by an activist mindset that appalled purist ‘freshwater economists’ who believed that monetary policy should be strictly non-discretionary. The Fed’s in-house forecaster described his modeling exercises as the proverbial sausage factory: it was best not to look inside. In Courage to Act, Bernanke offers a characteristically complacent summary of this ‘theoretical’ approach: ‘Over time, I have become convinced that New Keynesian ideas, leavened with insights from other schools of thought, including elements of the New Classical approaches, provide the best framework for practical policy making.’ As the leading academic economist on the Greenspan board, Bernanke’s role had been to narrate as much as to make monetary policy, adding intellectual veneer to the Fed’s improvised manipulations. In 2004, he offered the phrase ‘the great moderation’ to describe the benign combination of low wages and low inflation that had prevailed from the mid-1980s, which he attributed—even as the final Greenspan bubble inflated—to the wisdom of his colleagues in getting monetary policy right.
Not that the horizon was entirely free of storm clouds. In the 2000s, the obvious axis of concern was the gaping Sino-American trade imbalance. Washington was worried that there might be a rerun of the Asian financial crisis, but this time with the United States in the role of Thailand or Indonesia. All that seemed to be keeping the dollar up was the sheer size of its financial markets—and if the us went down, it would take all its creditors with it. In 2003, Summers described Sino-American economic relations as a ‘balance of financial terror’. From the narrow remit of the Fed, the main cause of concern was the increasing difficulty of controlling long-term interest rates. Here, too, Bernanke helped to put an analytical frame around Greenspan’s intuitions, with the so-called ‘savings-glut hypothesis’. The emerging markets—read: China—were accumulating huge reserves, a side-effect of their undervalued exchange rates and export surpluses. These funds flooded into global financial markets in search of safe, aaa-rated assets. Whether the Fed liked it or not, this flow of foreign capital drove American bond prices up and yields down. As long as the Chinese regime refused to let its currency strengthen, there was little the Fed could do. In the event, concern over the Sino-American axis was misplaced. As Paulson’s On the Brink makes clear, his old friends in Beijing turned out to be surprisingly cooperative partners in managing the global economy. The Chinese turned down a suggestion from Putin that they should join together in offloading their dollar-denominated assets as us mortgage-default levels began to soar. Instead, in 2007 and 2008, China steadily increased its holdings of us Treasury bonds and retained $700 billion of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgage bonds, even as those bankrupt juggernauts of American crony capitalism hit the rocks.