Easy Street

The Ben Bernanke Congressional Variety Hour

Heidi Moore Mar 1, 2012

In an election year, you don’t expect members of Congress to give up valuable television time to talk about the economy when they could be grandstanding, do you?

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is making his annual rounds of testimony about the economy, sitting in front of both houses of Congress. Actually, he’s doing very little testifying and a lot more of sitting around patiently listening while members of Congress grandstand about anything and everything that has even the vaguest relationship to money.

Occasionally, Bernanke nods, but mostly he seems to be trying not to fidget while he dreams of escape. (Or are we projecting?).

But, since Alan Greenspan put down his Ayn Rand and picked up the chairmanship of the Fed, the Federal Reserve chairman doesn’t just manage interest rates and keep his eye on inflation and unemployment, with a distant sideline in bank regulation. The Chairman now also acts as a kind of financial Johnny Carson, hosting a financial variety show. Think of Carson’s old skits as the fortune-teller Carnac the Magnificent.

This week, Bernanke fielded an omnibus of questions that have very little to do with what he actually does all day. Binyamin Appelbaum, a reporter at the New York Times, tweeted an entertaining stream of the random questions and goings-on during Bernanke’s testimony, including Ron Paul theatrically brandishing an ounce of silver. Reuters listed an impressive gauntlet of Bernanke’s highlights, which cover everything from Dodd-Frank to European sovereign debt.

A report from Keefe Bruyette & Woods wryly noted that of the 83 questions asked by the 61 members of the House Financial Services Committee, only seven questions were about Bernanke’s actual job: monetary policy. “Many, if not most, members use their 5 minutes for statements rather than questions so there are few opportunities for a deep dive into some of the details of monetary policy,” KBW noted wryly.

Unfortunately, the Bernanke Variety Hour did not get great ratings from the financial markets. 

“Treasuries had rallied ahead of Fed Chairman Bernanke’s first day of…testimony in the hope that he would give some signal that the Fed was open to expanding quantitative easing,” KBW analysts said of yesterday’s performance, adding, “and sold off when he failed to deliver.”

Gold and silver also both sold off yesterday after Bernanke’s comments, according to the Los Angeles Times. And today, Bernanke just seemed tired and the whole endeavor lacked energy, the New York Times suggested.

Everybody’s a critic.

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