3 Ways Ben Bernanke Revolutionized the Fed

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Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke at a hearing before the Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill, in Washington, D.C., on May 22, 2013.

Ben Bernanke’s eight-year reign as the global economy’s most influential man is coming to a close, and the Fed Chair is taking to the lecture circuit to encapsulate and defend his tenure, which may prove to be the most revolutionary in the central banks 100-year existence.

Last night, Bernanke spoke at the National Economists Club Annual dinner, giving a speech which summarized the most important innovations he instituted at the Federal Reserve. Here are the three ways in which Ben Bernanke forever changed America’s central bank:

1. Transparency and Communication: With both markets and the media paying such close attention to each new pronouncement from Ben Bernanke and the Fed, it’s amusing to think that before 1994, the Fed didn’t even announce to the public when it decided to change it’s target interest rates. Over the course of the Fed’s history, it has moved closer and closer towards a policy of transparency, both for the sake of transparency itself and because of the realization that by being forthright about its plans for future actions, the Fed can more effectively manage the economy.

But no Fed Chair has steered the central bank in the direction of transparency more than Ben Bernanke. Early on in his tenure, Bernanke broke tradition and sat down for an extended television interview with 60 minutes. He has also held regular press conferences to better explain monetary policy decisions, and gave a series of lectures at the George Washington University to explain the Fed’s response to the financial crisis.

2. Forward Guidance: These acts of transparency are helpful in allowing the press and public to better understand the Federal Reserve, but the most consequential step taken towards transparency was the decision to tell markets about Fed board members expectations for future monetary policy. By explaining where it felt it short-term interest rates would be years into the future, Bernanke believes the bank can get a bigger bang for its policy buck. For instance, by assuring investors that short-term interest rates will remain at zero at least until the unemployment rate falls below 6.5% or inflation rises above 2.5%, he can assure folks that borrowing costs will not likely rise for sometime, encouraging more economic activity.

3. Quantitative Easing (QE): Bernanke prefers the term Large Scale Asset Purchases, but either way this program is a big step for the Fed, which before the financial crisis almost exclusively bought and sold short-term debt. The program has long been criticized, first by those who feared inflation, and now by those who say its stoking financial instability. But Bernanke is defending the purchases, arguing that it has helped stimulate the economy by boosting stock and home prices and by lowering long-term interest rates.