Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said Tuesday he suffered a “lapse of judgment” by talking recently to a CNBC anchor, a conversation that caused the stock market to tank when his comments were reported.
Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., asked Bernanke about the episode during a Senate Banking Committee hearing on financial literacy.
“Senator, that episode you refer to was a lapse of judgment on my part,” Bernanke replied. “In the future my communications with the public and with the market will be entirely through regular and formal channels.”
Bernanke took over the Fed job on Feb. 1. In a congressional appearance on April 27, he had raised the possibility of the Fed pausing its two-year, credit-tightening campaign. Stocks rallied that day.
But on May 1, CNBC reported that Bernanke had told CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo that investors had misinterpreted his recent congressional remarks as an indication the Fed was nearly done raising rates. Stocks — which had been up for most of that day — slumped.
Bernanke had actually talked to Bartiromo a few days earlier — on April 29 — at the White House Correspondents Association’s annual dinner.
Besides raising questions about Bernanke’s communications skills, the incident underscored the fact that a single word uttered by a Fed chief can move stock and bond prices.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Bunning, who opposed Bernanke’s nomination as Fed chief, said: “I warned you to be careful about what you say because people are going to follow your words very closely.”
Bunning also took issue with the Fed’s decision to push interest rates higher to fend off inflation. The Fed’s last rate hike, on May 10, left a key rate at a five-year high of 5 percent. It marked the 16th increase since June 2004.
Bernanke defended the action. He pointed out that he and his Fed colleagues at the May meeting noted there were some inflation risks to the economy. In terms of the Fed’s next rate decision in late June, though, Bernanke said the Fed will rely heavily on what incoming barometers say about inflation and economic activity.
Between now and then, “we’ll be watching that data very carefully,” Bernanke said.
The exchange came at a hearing focused on financial literacy. The Fed chief told the panel that sharpening Americans’ financial know-how and skills is crucial to consumers’ ability to make smart money choices and is also good for the overall economy.
Consumers with the necessary skills to make informed financial decisions about buying a home, financing an education or their retirement or starting a business will almost certainly be economically better off than those lacking those vital skills, Bernanke said.
Bernanke said he believes competition is the best way for promoting the provision of better, cheaper financial products to consumers.
He said research shows that financial education and credit counseling can help people make better choices. That’s important not only for adults but also for teaching young people the basics of making good financial decisions, he said.
But young people are flunking when it comes to their understanding of basic financial matters, research shows.
On average, high school seniors answered correctly only 52.4 percent of questions about personal finance and economics, according to a nationwide survey released in early April. Still, that was a smidgen better than the 52.3 percent in the previous survey in 2004 and was up from the lowest-ever score of 50.2 percent in 2002.
The surveys, done every two years, were sponsored by the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, which wants students to have the skills to be financially competent.
Bolstering financial literacy — while important — isn’t a cure-all, Bernanke said.
“Clear disclosures, wise regulation and vigorous enforcement are also essential to ensuring that financial service providers do not engage in unfair or deceptive practices,” he said.
Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox, who also appeared before the panel, said the SEC would like to see corporate annual reports and mutual fund prospectuses written more clearly so they are easier for investors to understand.