Ben Bernanke's Speeches: At Least One Business Is Prospering
Former Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke, according to the New York Times, has developed a brisk business in performing at small dinner parties for “bankers, hedge fund billionaires and leaders of industry” at $200,000-$400,000 a pop.
Note that these are not speeches to large groups at conventions, where a big name is useful to goose attendance; those are handled through Bernanke’s speakers’ bureau, for a fee to be negotiated. The news reports concern sessions with small groups of insiders.
The logical question is, why does such a business exist? Why are hard-headed financial firms willing to pay this kind of money? Several possible explanations come to mind, all of them disturbing.
The first is that Bernanke shares insights with these paying customers that he did or does not share in his official or academic work. The NYT report quotes one attendee as saying that he “gave credence to the idea that the Fed believed in lower potential G.D.P. and lower potential inflation” – information that created an opportunity for trading.
This explanation seems tenuous, though. As one financier who balked at Bernanke’s fees said, you can just read what the officials are saying in public. Bernanke is not likely to say, “Well, of course I dissembled for the past decade, but here is the real dope.” But dinner attendee David Einhorn found it “scary” that Bernanke’s private answers to questions about zero interest rates were no better than his public ones, even under questioning, so perhaps there is some value in knowing “yep – that is indeed really what he thinks. He did not dumb it down for PR reasons.”
A second explanation is that the attendees get their money’s worth in a different way. While it is conceivable that the titans of industry are suckers, willing to pay a lot to hear what they could read for free, it is unlikely. The sponsors and attendees know what they are and are not getting, so they must see some value. It could be simply the value of consorting with each other; if 20 people attend, the cost is ten grand apiece, and rich hedge funders could regard this as a cheap price for a dinner with 19 of their confreres who are also rich enough to attend.
This is the most benign explanation. If financiers want to pay for each other’s company, that is their privilege, and salud to the entrepreneur who acts as the middleman and rakes off a cut.
The third possibility is to reward past service. It would be unseemly for the financial world to pay off public servants while they are in office, but huge benefits accrue to that world if officials understand that loyal service will be rewarded with future opportunities. If an industry can get such a cycle of expectation and reward established, it can profit hugely, with no risk from those pesky laws about payoffs because no payments are made until after satisfactory service has been rendered.
Of course, problems arise, because firms could ride for free. Goldman Sachs claims to balk at Bernanke’s fee level, which seems ungrateful of them, given that no firm profited more from government actions after the financial crisis. On the other hand, Goldman recently paid Hillary Clinton $400,000 for a couple of private speeches, and Hillary has less wisdom to impart than Ben, so perhaps the firms simply take turns.
Another possibility is that the sponsors are buying future influence. Bernanke is close to Yellen and other current officials and will be a go-to guy for the press seeking quotes on breaking events, so having him sympathetic to the firms’ interests is valuable. At the least, fat paydays mute possible criticisms.
This motive has considerable explanatory power, but of course it has even more in the case of the Clinton speeches, or other instances of ex-officials who are also possible future officials.
All this brings us to the final and most horrifying explanation – that no corrupt motives are involved. Perhaps Bernanke’s views and recommendations and those of the financiers who pay for his dinner company have become so perfectly aligned that no conflict between them can exist. What is good for Wall Street is good for America, and what is bad for Wall Street is bad for America. So it is worth the money to coordinate with an intelligent and powerful man on how to promote everyone’s joint interests.
Contemporaneously with the growing incestuous relationships between the government and Wall Street over the past few years, federal policy has been to leave no large bank behind. For example, finance expert David Alpert notes that during the financial crisis, the 20 institutions designated as “primary dealers” in government securities received $17.7 trillion in federal loans at an interest rate of 1.5%. “Collectively, these [government] policies amounted to stuffing enormous earnings into the fewer and larger financial institutions that survived the crisis. And this leaves aside the regulatory forbearance that banks have enjoyed since the crisis, enabling them to avoid liquidating hundreds of billions of dollars in bad assets and incurring losses.”
So make your choice and place your bet. My money is on the last choice, that no corrupt motives are involved, and my reaction is like Einhorn’s to the news that Bernanke has been telling the truth about his thinking all this time – that is really scary.
James V DeLong is the author of Ending ‘Big SIS’ (The Special Interest State) & Renewing the American Republic.