(Editor's note: The following commentary was originally posted on Fortune.)
Scientists observing bird flight patterns tell us the lead goose in the migratory V-pattern switches back and forth between looking ahead and looking back. It constantly checks the formation behind and adjusts its position to make sure it remains at the point of the flock. Periodically, the lead goose swerves out and another moves up to replace it, going through the same drill of lead, reposition, lead, and reposition.
President Obama made noises last week about Bernanke's future, comments which are being read as a clear signal that Bernanke will leave the Fed when his current term expires. Hot speculation was set off when President Obama said Bernanke has been on the job "longer than he was supposed to." Will Bernanke be fired? Will he be allowed to serve out his term? Is he in the Presidential doghouse? Commentators are furiously connecting the dots as pundits smack themselves on the forehead saying, We shoulda known when Bernanke failed to show at this year's global central bank confab at Jackson Hole, Wyo. What could all this mean?
Bernanke's term as Fed Chairman runs through January 31, 2014. His term as a member of the Federal Reserve Board ends January 31, 2020. Speculation aside, there seems little point in letting him go at this juncture ("Maybe President Obama didn't look at his teleprompter when he made that remark," one commentator mused.) President Obama is not up for reelection, and with the wheels of the economy grinding, it's too late for someone else to step in and take either credit or blame.
Of course there are those who wish he'd never gotten the appointment in the first place. Hedgeye has taken exception with Bernanke's policies from the beginning -- starting well before him. Bernanke is in many respects not a leader, but rather a follower of the Alan Greenspan-Henry Paulson-Tim Geithner school of coddling the rich. We have been firmly in favor of a Volcker-like jolt, one that pushes all the pain into a short time frame, then gets it out of the way.
At the same time, we wish to state for the record that we have tremendous admiration for Bernanke's intelligence, for his dedication, and for the profound commitment he has brought to his stint in public service. Serving as the appointed Head of Bloody Everything is a damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don't proposition under the best of circumstances. It does not take a Princeton Ph.D. to recognize that Bernanke has not been faced with the best of circumstances.
The question remains, though, how much of that is his fault?
Bernanke's approach has been to stimulate the financial markets, and with them the major banking and financial firms. It is not clear to us that Bernanke ever believed the multiple trillions of dollars in guarantees, free profits on Treasury spreads, and actual cash handouts were ever going to turn into actual loans to America's businesses. Bernanke's read of the Great Depression -- a topic on which he is famously a world-renowned expert -- is that the government did not do nearly enough. And history may in fact judge him in a positive light. In a society with so many freedoms tugging at the strings of policy -- and with such a compromised and conflicted process driving both legislation and the regulatory process -- it can't be simple to manage the economy from the top down.
Or can it?
As Hedgeye CEO Keith McCullough has repeatedly observed, the most predictable and constant effect of government intervention is to increase volatility in the marketplace by accelerating economic cycles, rather than letting things play out in their own time. We do not know how one measures societal pain, but we have always been of the opinion that a Volcker-like short, sharp shock to the system would have been far healthier than the extended malaise we have lived through over nearly three presidencies.
We think the next president may want to consider a substantive shift in policy. The Fed does not need an economist to run it. It may not even need someone with a deep understanding of the financial markets. Increasingly, as our elected government has abdicated its responsibility for decision-making, the nuts and bolts of running the economy has been handed over to appointed experts. Perhaps the Fed needs to be run like a business. Perhaps the Fed needs someone with experience meeting operating budgets, hiring and managing employees, and tracking flows in the economy to stay on budget. We never need to stay within a budget as long as we have unlimited access to the printing press. Maybe the next Fed chair should be the owner of a major plumbing supply house or a machine-tool shop.
Bernanke's task has been made more difficult by the fact that major economies' central banks are all pushing on the same accelerator. From Japan to Europe, printing presses are running 'round the clock to create liquidity, in hopes it will stimulate the global economy. This has had the effect of making Bernanke's QE "To Infinity and Beyond" what folks in the hedge fund world call a "crowded trade." When one smart person buys a cheap stock, they can make money with it. When everyone piles into the same "smart idea," two things happen: First, it drives the price to levels where there is no more profit to be made by the next buyer, and it sucks the liquidity out of the market, leaving holders with no one to sell to. In the ultimate crowded trade, the profits vanish and the next move is down. Usually way down. Usually with a thud.
In his most recent testimony, Bernanke expressed himself as "surprised" that interest rates have edged up recently. This is not occurring in a vacuum. This week Keith writes, "The last of the central planning bubbles left in the world is now popping. It's called the bubble in super sovereign debt." May we flatter ourselves to point out that Bernanke should have been subscribed to Hedgeye's research?
The impenetrable aspect of the Fed policy game is that we don't actually know what Chairman Bernanke thinks. The game is played as much with carefully selected public utterances as with actual open-market transactions to add liquidity. (We know there is also a theoretical policy option to decrease liquidity, but it has long been treated as hypothetical. Bernanke is like a driver who never learned that cars have brakes.)
Our take on Bernanke's performance is that he acknowledges the markets are moving away from his ability to control them. QE or not QE is no longer the question. Having led from the front, checking market reactions assiduously along the way -- and having apparently followed Americans' most ardent policy desire by focusing on employment and housing -- Bernanke is now trying to get out of the way gradually enough that the entire edifice does not collapse like a 10-story building into a vast sinkhole.