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Kai Ryssdal: No convention of the American Economic Association is complete without a speech from the chairman of the Federal Reserve. And this year’s meeting is no exception. You’ve probably already heard about Ben Bernanke’s speech in Atlanta yesterday. It wasn’t low interest rates and cheap money that brought on the housing bubble and the ensuing financial crisis, Mr. Bernanke said. It was lax regulation and laissez-faire supervision.
Setting aside for a moment the fact that the Federal Reserve is a key bank regulator, other themes coming out of that meeting are worth a mention. Our senior business correspondent Bob Moon reports.
BOB MOON: Some of the top economic brains in America have been delivering a not-so-happy New Year’s message at their meeting in Atlanta: The financial crisis — including weak economic growth and high unemployment — is far from over, they say. And some are warning flatly that the government’s stop-gap bailout measures are only delaying another inevitable crash.
The Fed chief told the gathering that tighter regulation — and careful vigilance — should prevent another meltdown, but he didn’t rule it out.
BEN BERNANKE: All efforts should be made to strengthen our regulatory system to prevent a recurrence of the crisis and to cushion the effects if another crisis occurs.
Simon Johnson is an economist at MIT. He’s convinced the opportunity for tighter regulation has passed, now that politicians who controlled the bailout strings have lost the upper hand.
SIMON JOHNSON: These so-called too-big-to-fail financial institutions were very dependent on government support at that time, and it would have been possible to really de-fang those dangerous beasts that are still with us. Unfortunately, that opportunity was missed. And now the too-big-to-fail banks are even bigger, even more confident that they will be bailed out, and this is going to lead to trouble down the road.
Johnson complains they have a tacit guarantee to keep taking risks. Now, the Fed chief says if that happens, he’ll be ready.
BERNANKE: We must remain open to using monetary policy as a supplementary tool for addressing those risks.
But a glittering parade of top economists — including Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz — labeled regulatory reforms on the table “totally inadequate.”
MIT’s Simon Johnson warns government leaders are playing with fire.
JOHNSON: My point is that there is no guarantee next time that you will have the kind of fiscal response, or the ability to respond from the Federal Reserve, that will be sufficient to stabilize the economy.
Which is why so many of the assembled economists remain worried about the months ahead. Johnson goes as far as suggesting lawmakers should think twice about confirming Bernanke to another term leading the Fed.
I’m Bob Moon for Marketplace.
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