Ben Bernanke's Greatest Challenge

Fed Chairman Discusses Recession, Financial Rescues And Recovery In Wide-Ranging 60 Minutes Interview

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The day after Lehman, Bernanke's Fed did something astounding: it loaned $85 billion to a company that wasn't a bank at all - American International Group (AIG), the global insurance giant that was also involved in backing risky mortgage investments. Bernanke says, unlike Lehman, the Fed could make the loans based on good collateral in AIG's portfolio.

"There have now been four rescues of AIG, $160 billion. Why is that necessary?" Pelley asked.

"Let me just first say that of all the events and all of the things we've done in the last 18 months, the single one that makes me the angriest, that gives me the most angst, is the intervention with AIG. Here was a company that made all kinds of unconscionable bets. Then, when those bets went wrong, we had a situation where the failure of that company would have brought down the financial system," Bernanke said.

"You say it makes you angry?" Pelley asked.

"It makes me angry. I slammed the phone more than a few times on discussing AIG. I understand why the American people are angry. It's absolutely unfair that taxpayer dollars are going to prop up a company that made these terrible bets, that was operating out of the sight of regulators, but which we have no choice but the stabilize, or else risk enormous impact, not just in the financial system, but on the whole U.S. economy," Bernanke explained.

By September, Bernanke and then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson went to Capitol Hill to urge a massive bailout of the banking system.

Asked how close of a call it was, Bernanke said, "It was very close. It was very close. The Congress passed the bill that gave Treasury the right to put capital into the banks in the first week of October. And it was in the second week of October that the crisis reached its peak. If we had not had those powers, we could have had a much, much worse outcome. So it was a very dangerous situation."

"Was anyone on Capitol Hill skeptical? Did they push back at all, you know, 'Mr. Chairman, it's probably not quite that bad'?" Pelley asked.

"Well, I do remember one conversation I had where I was addressing a caucus of congressmen. And a congressman said to me, 'Mr. Chairman, you know, I'm talking to bankers in my town. I'm talking to shopkeepers in my town. And they say things are normal. Nothing's going on. We don't see any problem.' And I turned to him and I said, 'You will,'" Bernanke recalled.

That second week of October, the Dow fell 18 percent - its worst week in history.

In the midst of the crisis, Bernanke had freedom to act immediately - he doesn't need permission from Congress or the president. While they debated on Capitol Hill, Bernanke cut interest rates nearly to zero; then he used Depression-era emergency powers to launch a dozen rescue programs of his own. There was support for money market funds, mortgages, short term lending to small business, and support for auto loans, student loans and small business loans - commitments of a trillion dollars, doubling the size of the Fed's balance sheet.

Asked if it's tax money the Fed is spending, Bernanke said, "It's not tax money. The banks have accounts with the Fed, much the same way that you have an account in a commercial bank. So, to lend to a bank, we simply use the computer to mark up the size of the account that they have with the Fed. It's much more akin to printing money than it is to borrowing."

"You've been printing money?" Pelley asked.

"Well, effectively," Bernanke said. "And we need to do that, because our economy is very weak and inflation is very low. When the economy begins to recover, that will be the time that we need to unwind those programs, raise interest rates, reduce the money supply, and make sure that we have a recovery that does not involve inflation."