The worst moment of the 2008 financial crisis for former Federal Reserve Board Chair Ben Bernanke was what he calls “the Lehman weekend.”
“The worst moment – I don’t think will shock you – was the Lehman weekend, and the knowledge that it was going to fail and the fear and uncertainty that was associated with that,” Bernanke said during a wide-ranging interview on CNBC’s Squawk Box. “And, then, the next couple days as we had to deal with AIG and talk to Congress. Very tough.”
Bernanke admits he was “very worried.”
“My whole background as an academic was studying the Great Depression, studying financial panics or effects on the economy, and I saw that we were having the granddaddy of all financial panics about to explode on us and I thought the consequences would be tremendous,” he told CNBC.
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Bernanke appeared on CNBC as part of a promotion tour for his just-released memoir, “The Courage to Act: A Memoir of a Crisis and Its Aftermath.”
In his book, Bernanke basically puts an end to the debate of whether Lehman Brothers could have been saved. He says there was no way to save it.
“We tried really hard [to save Lehman],” he told CNBC. “At the time, conventional wisdom and the media elsewhere was ‘Let it go. Let it go.’ We knew, we were afraid that it wasn’t just the company itself but the fact that the markets were already in panic and the failure of that company and all of its ramifications would raise the level of panic to a whole new level and it would be extraordinarily destructive. So we tried very, very hard to avoid it. Unfortunately the tools that we used in other cases were not available.”
Bernanke admittedly blames himself for some of the speculation that Lehman could have been saved.
“In the few days following the collapse … it was our decision, our agreement that we would be reticent about being completely clear that we had been unable to save Lehman,” he told CNBC. “Because we were afraid that that would create even more panic. That may not have been the right decision, I certainly admit that, but that’s what we did.”
Asked if there were any great moments in his career as Fed chairman, Bernanke was unspecific but positive.
“As an economist, what better job could you have?” he said. “You had all these people helping you think about what’s happening. And, you were providing leadership for the global economy. In many ways it was a great job.”
Switching gears, Bernanke also discussed the current economic environment both stateside and globally.