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Bernanke suggests his tenure is winding down

By Hans Nichols
Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke says he’s “spoken to the president a bit” about his future and that he feels no personal responsibility to stay at the helm until the Fed winds down its unprecedented policies to stimulate the economy.

“I don’t think that I’m the only person in the world who can manage the exit,” Bernanke said when asked at a news conference in Washington whether he’s discussed his plans with President Barack Obama. His term expires at the end of January.

Bernanke’s comments this week meshed with the views of some of Obama’s economic and political advisers who said Bernanke, 59, after spending most of his seven years on the job battling a financial crisis and its aftermath, is exhausted and wants to return to private life. The current and former administration officials asked to not be identified to describe the private conversations.

Michelle Smith, a Fed spokeswoman, declined to comment. Amy Brundage, a White House spokeswoman, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Wednesday’s remarks were a departure from Bernanke’s previous statements that he hasn’t discussed his plans with Obama or White House officials.

On Dec. 12, during his last news conference, Bernanke said that he had not “had any conversations” with the president or anyone on his team about his potential departure.

“I think the president has got quite a few issues he needs to be thinking about, from the fiscal cliff to many other appointments and so on,” he said then, when asked whether he would serve a third term.

Since then, Bernanke has had several meetings with Timothy F. Geithner, when he was still Treasury secretary, including one with the president. Geithner left that meeting early, giving Obama and the Federal Reserve chairman some private time, according to a person familiar with the meeting.

On Wednesday, Bernanke said, “I’ve spoken to the president a bit, but I really don’t have any, I don’t really have any information for you at this juncture.”

Bernanke also said he didn’t feel personally responsible to lead the Fed when it unwinds its balance sheet.

Bernanke, a former Princeton University professor and student of the Great Depression, took steps unprecedented in the Fed’s 100-year history to steer the economy through its worst crisis since the 1930s.

He used the Fed’s balance sheet to rescue Bear Stearns and American International Group from collapse, while supporting corporations and small businesses with innovative lending programs that kept credit flowing as banks struggled under rising amounts of home-loan delinquencies.

He cut the benchmark lending rate to zero in December 2008 to boost the economy and then continued to provide stimulus with outright bond purchases, expanding the Fed’s total assets to a record $3.17 trillion. Wednesday, Bernanke said the Fed would maintain its $85 billion in monthly asset purchases and keep its key rate near zero.

“You can thank Ben Bernanke that we are not in a global depression,” Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer said June 27.

While the Obama administration hasn’t started gathering names and presenting them to the president, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling probably will lead the effort, one administration official said.

Four years ago, in the lead-up to Bernanke’s renomination, the process was run by Geithner. Larry Summers, then NEC director, was excluded because he also was interested in the position, the official said.

With the Fed’s chairmanship staggered to the president’s four-year term, the last three Fed chairmen have served a total of six presidents. Five of the last six presidents have inherited a chairman whom they then renominated.

Bernanke and immediate predecessors Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan were all reappointed by presidents from different parties than the presidents who initially nominated them. The circumstances of their eventual departures were unique and depended on their personal relationships with presidents.

“It’s not a formal process,” Greenspan said in an interview. “It’s an individual decision by two people: the chairman of the Federal Reserve, and the president of the United States.”

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