Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke presided over an economic boom, a recession and a slow recovery. Will he stay to nurse the economy back to vigorous health?
Not likely, say many economists. Two out of three in a USA TODAY survey predict the USA's most famous economist will step down when his second term ends next January.
Bernanke, 59, hasn't revealed his intentions publicly. Nor has President Obama, who would have to renominate him. But after he steered the U.S. economy through the worst crisis since the Great Depression, economists who follow the Fed are betting he's ready for a change.
"The workload has been extremely high, and the stress level (at the Fed) has been extremely elevated for quite some time," says Barclays Capital economist Michael Gapen, who headed a Fed monetary policy division from 2008 to 2010.
Gapen noted his assessment is based partly on his experience at the central bank during the 2008 financial crisis, but he claims no knowledge of Bernanke's plans. "He's kept all of this close to the vest."
USA TODAY asked 46 top economists in early Febuary about their views of the economy and the Fed.
Speculation about whether Bernanke will seek a third four-year term has swirled since Obama was re-elected. In the campaign, Republican candidate Mitt Romney said that if he won, he would replace Bernanke when his term ends.
At a December news conference, Bernanke was asked if he would stay upon a request from Obama. "I am very much engaged in these difficult issues and I have not been spending time thinking about my own future," said Bernanke, a former Princeton economics professor who joined the Fed's board in 2002 and became chairman in 2006.
Bernanke has been hailed by many economists and lawmakers for spearheading the Fed's unorthodox efforts to hold down long-term interest rates and stimulate the economy by purchasing about $2.4 trillion in Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities since 2008.
But critics, such as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., say Bernanke's easy-money policies are stoking eventual inflation. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., noted he didn't take steps to head off the housing meltdown by raising interest rates sooner or cracking down on subprime-lending practices.
Gapen says Bernanke likely would prefer to avoid another bruising Senate confirmation hearing and Obama likely would not want to spend political capital appointing him. Bernanke was confirmed for a second term by a 70-30 Senate vote, the weakest support ever for a Fed chairman.
Richard Moody, chief economist of Regions Bank, says that with the economy improving, "We're finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel." Bernanke, he adds, likely "feels like he's done what he can and he's leaving the board in good hands."
ITG chief economist Steve Blitz says simply, "He's exhausted."
But some of those surveyed say Bernanke would stay if Obama asked him to. With the jobless rate at 7.9%, well above the Fed's 5% to 6% target, Allen Sinai of Decision Economics says, "I think he'll finish the job."
Whoever heads the Fed a year from now, Fed policy is unlikely to change, Gapen says, because front-runners to succeed him, such as Vice Chair Janet Yellen, generally share Bernanke's views.
There is one advantage for Bernanke in leaving in January. If the Fed in the next few years triggers inflation by selling its portfolio of bonds too slowly or stifles growth by selling them too rapidly, "You can blame it on the next guy," Gapen says.
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