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Business Comment

David Prosser: An odd time to applaud Bernanke

Outlook Congratulations then to Ben Bernanke, Time magazine's person of the year. In a year when the competition for the title was not hotly contested – judging by the other contenders the magazine says it considered – the US Federal Reserve chairman won because without him "a weak economy could have been much, much weaker".

Still, this was a brave choice because although Mr Bernanke has now won a second term at the Fed – he is due at a confirmation hearing today – the chairman has no shortage of critics, and not just among Republicans who believe his economic stimulus programme will eventually cause an inflationary crisis.

The most serious accusation facing "Helicopter Ben" is that, for a man whose academic area of expertise was the 1930s depression, he was remarkably slow to spot a disastrous recession coming down the tracks towards the US and the world.

Indeed, the Fed seemed to wake up to the risks facing America in one dramatic moment, announcing in January 2008 that it was cutting interest rates by 0.75 percentage points, the biggest monetary policy intervention for 25 years.

In fact, the Fed took forever to wake up to the seriousness of the credit crunch, or the danger it might prompt a devastating recession. In the summer of 2007, as fears began to grow about problems in the sub-prime lending market, Mr Bernanke said he thought a crisis could cost as much as $100bn. Two-and-a-half years later, that has proved to be an 80-fold underestimate.

Having been complacent about the US recession, the Fed did, of course, intervene in unprecedented fashion once the penny dropped. And maybe the economy would indeed have been much weaker this year had it not done so. Still, the irony of Mr Bernanke's award will not be lost on US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, for whom the strength of the US economy during 2009 has not been enough to prevent calls for his resignation. The 10 per cent unemployment rate in America might have been considered reason not to applaud anyone holding office that comes with responsibility for managing the economy.

It is only possible to assess the qualities of policymakers such as these some years after they have left office, when the full consequences of their actions can be seen. The reputation of Alan Greenspan, for example, has been reassessed in the light of the role he played in the asset bubbles we now realise developed during and after his period at the Fed. Mr Bernanke may yet come to be seen as one of the great occupiers of this office. But with the world economy not out of the woods yet – and millions of Americans out of work – this award looks strangely premature.