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Bernanke Is One of the Most Consequential Central Bankers of All Time: Neil Irwin

Bernice Napach
Daily Ticker

The Federal Reserve has emerged as one of the most important government entities when it comes to the economy. Many economists credit the Fed with helping the economy recover from The Great Recession. But many politicians--primarily Republicans--criticize the central bank for overreaching and creating more problems in the long run.

Yet every month when the jobs report is released, all eyes turn toward the Fed: Are the numbers weak enough to push the Fed to ease further? High enough for the Fed to tighten monetary policy? Or uncertain enough for the Fed to stay put?

But any hopes that the Fed would raise interest rates and end its bond-buying program this summer were quashed after last Friday's disappointing jobs report.

Related: March Jobs Disaster: It's a Bad Report but Don't Panic, Brusca Says

"We get one bad jobs report and we start to rethink" the Fed's exit strategy says Neil Irwin, author of The Alchemists: Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire.

He says the question now is not whether the Fed will start to taper its bond purchases BUT if the Fed has to expand them. Irwin says the Fed isn’t ready yet for more bond purchases.

When the Fed does finally reverse strategy it will do so gradually, says Irwin, who’s also a columnist and editor at The Washington Post.

“First you taper off bond purchases, then you stop them altogether, then you actually tighten—raise interest rates or sell off the [the bonds] at some later date," he notes.

Investors could get more insight into future Fed policy when the central bank releases minutes of its last policy meeting on Wednesday, April 10.

Irwin is not worried that the Fed will fail to reverse strategy when the time is right. But he does admit that there are risks for the Fed when it unwinds its $3 trillion balance sheet.

Related: The Fed Will Fail and Take the Private Economy with It: David Stockman

“If there’s one thing central banks know how to do is if there’s an inflation problem you raise interest rates,” says Irwin. “And we have seen Ben Bernanke willing to take the heat, have people yell at him about doing quantitative easing and do it anyway because he thinks it’s the right thing for the U.S. economy."

Should President Obama reappoint Ben Bernanke when his term as Fed Chairman ends Jan. 31, 2014?

Irwin doubts that Bernanke wants a third term as chairman. “It’s been a long seven-plus years.”

Bernanke has served on the Fed Board of Governors since 2002 and was appointed chairman in 2006 and again in 2010. He will leave an admirable legacy, says Irwin.

“Ben Bernanke has proven himself to be a very able manager of the U.S. economy...He’s one of the most consequential central bankers of all time," Irwin argues.

But staying on at the Fed and risking another dynasty may not be wise, says Irwin. Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan was one of the most celebrated Fed chairmen when he left the central bank in early 2006 but was highly criticized after the financial crisis took hold.

“Alan Greenspan being there for 17 years was part of the reason the Fed was slow on the ball in understanding the risks building in the system in the mid-2000s,” says Irwin.

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