“The News Was That It Happened”

Bernanke presser was good and right

I wish that was an original thought, but Randall Forsyth of Barron’s made the apt observation on the post-game wrap-up on the WSJ NewsHub web video/live blog show of the Bernanke press conference, the first-ever by a Fed chairman. The news was that he decided to do it.

Let the record show I would have thought of it, eventually.

Subtler minds began parsing the wording, emphasis, and body language of the Fed chief, while the event was still underway or immediately afterward. Paul Krugman and others hoping for more action on unemployment were let down. Columbia’s Charles Calomiris was practically clicking his heels on the WSJ’s video site because Bernanke more or less ruled out another bond-buying round, a QE3, and essentially said long-term unemployment in and of itself was beyond the scope of the Fed’s powers, which could only attack unemployment generally. Calomiris said this was music to the ears of those worried about building inflationary pressures, inflation hawks. Fair enough.

For the rest of us, Bernanke came across as about as on-message as you can be. Floyd Norris has it right when blogged:

Rarely has a news conference been greeted with as much anticipation — and as little doubt about what will be said — as this afternoon’s appearance by Ben Bernanke, the Fed’s chairman.

As for the reporters’ performance, everyone seemed more or less ready for their close up. No gaffs. No looney questions or even questions about the Loonie.

The most discordant aspect of the event in fact was the window it provided onto how heavily male-dominated economics and financial journalism is—a fact Tweeted by many and wryly commented upon by Kat Aaron of Investigative Reporting Workshop:

So one female reporter asks a question at this first Fed presser. Fed man date indeed.

Um, point taken.

Still, the more I think about it, the more I liked this press conference. Whether you’re worried about jobs or the price of gas, all you’re looking for from something like this is that someone will ask your question. And since there were basically only two —what about inflation, but what about unemployment?—with a few variations on the theme (what about the dollar, what about the U.S. credit rating, what about *long*-term unemployment?) this was done, several times over. My specific question was more or less covered under the long-term unemployment question, not that the answer was especially satisfying.

Some might dispute that Bernanke said anything new or different than he might say to Congress, but the questions here were shorter and more direct and lacked speeches in front of them. So that’s an improvement.

More broadly is the symbolism, and this was Bernanke’s insight, I think: that the voice-from-the-mountaintop thing is no longer operable.

The financial crisis was a colossal event, a watershed. In the aftermath of cataclysmic failure, no financial institution has come through with its credibility unscathed, certainly not the Fed, which has since been forced to take what Bernanke keeps calling “extraordinary” measures to deal with the consequences. When the Fed chairman uses the word “extraordinary,” he means “hair on fire” (check out this timeline of Fed actions during the crisis).

Even if it substantively means little, symbolically the act of the Fed chairman stepping out from behind the curtain and sitting down to answer questions from reporters means something quite important: It’s a new day.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman. Tags: ,