Mano a Mano with Ben Bernanke

The highlight of last week’s Schwab Impact conference for me was seeing, and then meeting, former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.

Initially, Bernanke came to the stage in front of nearly 5,000 attendees and gave a 10-15 minute speech about the Federal Reserve’s response to the 2008 financial crisis.

He then did a 45 minute question and answer session with Schwab’s Chief Investment Strategist, Liz Ann Sonders, who did a wonderful job of asking interesting, thoughtful questions and still managed to keep the discussion light and lively.

Although I’ve read several books on the crisis (the best being, ‘Too Big To Fail’ by Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times), it was fascinating to hear Bernanke describe the war-room like atmosphere during the crisis, which he aptly called a panic.

He talked about the difficulties in passing the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), and was relieved that the program did in fact stabilize the financial system and the taxpayers actually turned a profit.

Bernanke discussed the initial rollout of quantitative easing (and said that they didn’t like the term QE1 and the subsequent QE2 and QE3 iterations) and thought that it was too early to judge them a success or failure given that the program just ended last month.

When talking about the QE programs, he was emphatic in saying that ‘inflation was never a risk.’ He said that it ‘made no sense [because] there was too much slack in the economy’ and that those who believed that it would lead to inflation were simply guilty of ‘bad economics.’

In fact, his judgment at the time was that the risk of deflation was a much bigger problem than inflation. Bernanke said that the Europeans are struggling with the risk of deflation today and that quantitative easing is a problem there because the European Central Bank (ECB) needs support from its member countries, half of whom are opposed to bond buying programs.

One of the great things about Bernanke’s presentation is that he was really funny and seemed very down to earth.

He told a story about how he dropped his daughter off at college and when her roommate asked what her father did for a living, his daughter said that her dad was the Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

The roommate responded, with surprise, ‘your dad is Alan Greenspan?!?’ He went on to say that 12 percent of Americans think that Greenspan is still the Fed Chairman.

For me, the highlight was meeting Bernanke, although it was very, very brief. In fact, to say that I met him is almost a stretch.

After he spoke, I was invited to get my picture taken with Bernanke along with about 50 other advisors. We stood in line and each person got less than 30 seconds to shake hands with the Chairman and pose for a picture.

All of the guys ahead of me in line all said something, but he was stone faced. I don’t blame him, that kind of thing must be horribly boring and I suspect as one of the top people in Washington, he’s done it far too many times.

I really wanted to see if I could get something out of him, so when I approached, I said as wryly as possible, ‘I’m a little surprised that you want photos with all of us individually,’ to which he laughed and replied, ‘my mantle will be full this year!’