March 16, 2008
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke is being forced to throw out four decades of monetary history by a financial system choking on miscalculated risks and a deepening recession.
Bernanke and the four Fed governors voted yesterday to become creditors to Bear Stearns Cos., a securities firm that isn’t a bank, by invoking a law that hasn’t been used since the 1960s. Three days earlier, the Fed said it would swap Treasury notes on its balance sheet for privately issued mortgage-backed securities held by Wall Street firms.
“It’s a re-drawing of the relationship of the Federal Reserve with the rest of the financial system,” said Vincent Reinhart, former director of the Division of Monetary Affairs at the Board. Risks of so-called moral hazard, where firms will now come to count on bailouts by a federal agency, “are considerable,” he said.
The cost of doing nothing may have been even greater, say other former Fed officials. Bernanke is attempting to keep the nation’s financial machinery working as record home foreclosures make investors reluctant to hold even bonds backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, government-chartered firms. The 54-year-old Fed chairman is also trying to contend with a worsening economic slump: Reports this week showed that retail sales unexpectedly fell and consumer confidence slid to a 16-year low.
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