Janet Yellen is succeeding Ben Bernanke as the chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve. Jason Reed/Reuters
Janet Yellen, soon to be the new head of the world's most powerful central bank, sure seems like a nice person. In some circles, being nice is an insult. Some Americans say Canadians are too nice – we even thank our bank machines, goes the joke. But despite all that, Janet Yellen does seem nice.
Not that the outgoing chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, is a bad man. And surely the one before that, Alan Greenspan, meant well when he kept cutting interest rates to keep the stock and property boom alive – long past the moment when, most now agree, they should have been allowed to take a rest.
But Janet Yellen – soft-spoken, seemingly concerned about America's disenfranchised as much as she is about stock market growth – exudes character. With Yellen assuming the role of Fed chair on Feb. 1, the question is, what does the character of a central banker mean for the economic future of the U.S., the world… and Canada?
For all the supposed clout of the U.S. central bank, the chair of the Fed does not have the power of a dictator. In a rare foray into central bank humour, comedian Rick Mercer reminds us that the levers of that power are subtle.
There is no question that Yellen is smart. That will count in her job of swinging the 19 members of the committee that makes interest rate decisions toward consensus. But it will also be helped by the feeling that she is motivated by the best intentions for the entire U.S.
Central bankers a product of their time
It may be that each of the recent central bankers was perfectly suited to their times. Greenspan, who trained at the knee of Ayn Rand, presided during the era of Greed Is Good, when everyone in the world was supposed to be fighting to get to the top of the heap.
When the house of cards suddenly collapsed, it was the turn of Ben Bernanke, a man who has made a career studying the economic mistakes that turned a 1929 market collapse into the Great Depression. He wanted to prevent the same thing from happening again, at all costs.
Now, we are in a different era. It appears that Bernanke's strategy managed to avert a disruptive economic collapse. But one of the results of the Fed's emergency measures was to give a giant handout to the people who Greenspan had allowed to climb to the top of the heap, creating a class divide not seen since before the Great Depression.
Like almost everyone else in the upper echelons of U.S. government, Yellen is elite, with elite friends. As she said in a revealing interview in the early 2000s with fellow University of California, Berkeley economist Kenneth Train, when she voted in favour of interest rate hikes in the 1990s, she says she felt pressure in social circles.
"Higher interest rates are things that people really don't like," she told Train. "I would go to parties and meet people [and people would say,] 'I'm losing money because you’re raising interest rates and what you're doing is harming me.'"
She goes on to say that while it drove home her personal responsibility for making rate decisions, she had to put the interests of the wider economy before those of her friends.
An easing of quantitative easing?
Yellen's job now could have even more of an impact on her well-off friends. As I have said before, the distorting effect of Bernanke's quantitative easing (or QE) – buying bonds to stimulate the economy when interest rates could go no lower – has been great for the stock market. But there are growing doubts that the extra injection of cash is making it into the hands of the poorer Americans who need it most.
Yellen knows she will have to cut QE eventually. But it is a scary process. You may argue whether or not QE really worked. But if buying bonds stimulated the economy, then ending the buying of bonds will definitely de-stimulate it. As with plans to halt fiscal spending in 2010, stopping a strong stimulant is effectively indistinguishable from taking a strong depressant.
As the Fed said in recently released minutes, even if reducing QE does not have a huge, direct impact on Main Street, it might cause an "unintended tightening of financial conditions if a reduction in the pace of asset purchases was misinterpreted as signaling that the Committee was likely to withdraw policy accommodation more quickly than had been anticipated."
That's Fed-speak for bond and mortgage markets taking fright, sending interest rates shooting up. It's not just hypothetical. It happened once last year, just because people thought policy would change. And that wouldn’t just be bad for Americans. World bond and mortgage rates are set in the U.S., and the Canadian housing market might be severely hurt by such a shock.
If you believe, as I do, that QE is hurting a majority of Americans and Canadians, and maybe doing long-term damage to the entire society by increasing the disparity of rich and poor, Yellen has a balancing act ahead of her. Her feat must be to reduce QE as quickly as possible without scaring the markets into thinking she is doing it too quickly.
Thankfully, Yellen is appropriately humble.
"Macroeconomics, I think it's a very useful set of tools for thinking about the economy," she said in her interview with Train. "But in terms of our ability to know the future and forecast where things are going, that's a very difficult thing to do. There are a lot of imponderables.”
If Yellen succeeds, it will not be a feat of strength. It will be a feat of wisdom. It will be a feat of experience. And it will depend on being nice. Nice as a Canadian. With luck, Yellen, like Greenspan and Bernanke, will be the right person for her time. The world needs a little nice.