WASHINGTON (AP) — It sounds pretty routine: A Washington official holds a news conference. But when Ben Bernanke decided in 2011 to start meeting with reporters four times a year on national television, it marked a radical departure.
Never had a Federal Reserve chairman held regular news conferences. The Fed, an independent government agency, had long shrouded itself in obscurity, even secrecy.
Bernanke's move was part of his broader drive to make the Fed more transparent and publicly accessible as it tried to help the economy heal from the Great Recession. He has also held town-hall meetings, appeared on "60 Minutes" and publicly released details of Fed officials' policy plans and forecasts.
On Wednesday, Bernanke held his 12th and final news conference as chairman. Here are some highlights from his appearances:
— Regrets? He's had, well, many (Sept. 18, 2013)
If Bernanke acknowledged any defining mistake as Fed chair, it was downplaying the housing bubble. The 2008 financial meltdown sent the economy into an epic tailspin. Bernanke misquoted the Frank Sinatra classic "My Way" when reflecting on the crisis, which would shape his stewardship of the Fed. Sinatra officially had only a "few" regrets. Bernanke was among the rare Washington leader to acknowledge "many":
"On regrets, as Frank Sinatra says, I have many. I think my — you know, reasonably, the biggest regret I have is that we didn't forestall the crisis. I think once the crisis got going, it was extremely hard to prevent. You know, I think we did what we could, given the powers that we had."
— Man of the people (March 20, 2013)
Bernanke, a longtime Princeton University professor, loved to stress his roots in a humble area of South Carolina. He sometimes did so to try to humanize economic pain that is frequently illustrated only through numbers:
"I have a relative that is unemployed. But I come from a small town in South Carolina that has taken a big hit from the recession. Last time I was there, the unemployment rate was about 15 percent. I think it's better now. The home that I was raised in had just been foreclosed upon when I was visiting there."
— How he thought he helped you (Sept. 13, 2012)
One criticism of the Bernanke Fed's policies was that they've benefited mainly Wall Street and wealthier Americans. The stock market gains accrued to prosperous households that could also refinance their mortgages with low rates the Fed had engineered. But Bernanke suggested that low interest rates also help ordinary people — and, by extension, the economy:
"If people feel that their financial situation is better because their 401(k) looks better or for whatever reason, their house is worth more, they are more willing to go out and spend, and that's going to provide the demand that firms need in order to be willing to hire and to invest."
— Congress hurt the recovery (Dec. 18, 2013)
The Fed is an independent agency of government, although Bernanke curiously referred to Congress as the Fed's "boss." He went on to note that budget cuts by federal, state and local governments had subtracted from U.S. economic growth:
"At this stage in the last recession, which was a much milder recession, state, local and federal governments had hired 400,000 additional workers from the trough of the recession. At the same point in this recovery, the change in state, local and federal government workers is minus 600,000. So there's about a million workers' difference in how many people have been employed at all levels of government."
— Hey, big spender (June 19, 2013)
For the past year, the Fed has been buying $85 billion a month in mortgage and Treasury bonds to try to keep long-term borrowing rates low. At his June news conference, Bernanke indicated that the Fed could end its bond purchases by mid-2014, when he estimated unemployment would be around 7 percent. Separately, the Fed had said it planned to keep its key short-term rate at a record low at least as long as unemployment stays above 6½ percent. Bernanke sought to explain — with a mixed metaphor — why the Fed might not stop its purchases or pursue higher interest rates even when unemployment dipped to those levels.
"The economic conditions we have set out as preceding any future rate increase are thresholds, not triggers," he said. "The 7, the 6½ — these are guideposts that tell you how we're going to be shifting the mix of our tools as we try to land this ship on a, you know, on a — in a smooth way onto the aircraft carrier."
— Going through withdrawal (June 19, 2013)
The possibility that the Fed would stop buying bonds caused the markets to tumble in June. Bernanke tried to calm investors by saying any pullback in the Fed's bond purchases would be gradual. It was an unique moment: Fed policy was being announced at a chairman's news conference rather than in the statement the Fed's committee issued after its meeting. Bernanke added a tone of jocularity when he quipped that he'd been "deputized" by the committee to announce the news himself:
"To use the analogy of driving an automobile, any slowing in the pace of purchases will be akin to letting up a bit on the gas pedal as the car picks up speed, not to beginning to apply the brakes. ...What I was deputized to do, if you will, was to try to make somewhat clearer the implications of our existing policy and to try to explain better how the policy would evolve in various economic scenarios, and that's a little bit difficult to put into, you know, a very terse FOMC statement. "
— Weight of Inequality (Nov. 2, 2011)
During the Occupy Wall Street protests, Bernanke acknowledged that the United States was growing more economically unequal. Yet he suggested that the Fed could do little to fix the problem:
"Increases in inequality have been going on for at least 30 years, but obviously as that has continued, we now have a more unequal society than we've had in the past. I think the best way to address inequality is to create jobs. It gives people opportunities. It gives people a chance to earn income, gain experience, and to ultimately earn more. But that's an indirect approach; that's really the only way the Fed can address inequality per se."
— Great powers, but many limitations (April 27, 2011)
As President Barack Obama and Congress shifted attention to deficit cutting, Bernanke stressed at his first news conference that the Fed couldn't fix the economy on its own despite the extraordinary steps it had taken to support growth. Bernanke invoked one of his favorite words: panacea.
"We were very clear that this was not going to be a panacea, that it was only going to turn the economy in the right direction," he said.
And while the Fed has been accorded extraordinary ability to affect the economy, he said it was not equipped to stop then-rising gas prices:
"There's not much the Federal Reserve can do about gas prices, per se, at least not without derailing growth entirely, which is certainly not the right way to go. After all, the Fed can't create more oil."