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Bernanke mentor leading candidate for Fed vice chair

By Binyamin Appelbaum  /  NY Times News Service, WASHINGTON

Former Bank of Israel governor Stanley Fischer speaks during a session hosted by Bloomberg Television on the third day of the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 28, 2011.

Photo: Bloomberg

Stanley Fischer, the former governor of the Bank of Israel and a mentor to US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, is the leading candidate to become vice chairman of the Fed, former and current administration officials have said.

If nominated, and then confirmed by the US Senate, Fischer, 70, would succeed Janet Yellen, whom US President Barack Obama nominated to succeed Bernanke as the Fed’s leader when his term ends next month.

Fischer is at once a surprising choice and a popular pick among economists and investors. He is a highly regarded economist with significant policymaking experience, yet many had considered his selection improbable because of his recent service in a foreign government. News about Fischer’s possible nomination was reported on Israeli television.

That experience could become a concern if he is nominated, as could his experience at Citigroup, where he was vice chairman between 2002 and 2005. The company’s expansion during that period eventually ended in a federal bailout.

As the Fed’s vice chairman, Fischer would most likely exert a moderating influence on Yellen, echoing, in a way, her intellectual partnership with Bernanke. Yellen is a forceful advocate for the Fed’s efforts to stimulate the economy and reduce unemployment. Fischer has been generally supportive of those efforts, but has raised questions about the particulars.

He offered measured support at a conference last month for the Fed’s bond-buying campaign, describing it as “dangerous” but “necessary.” At the same time, he has expressed greater skepticism about the companion effort to hold down borrowing costs by declaring that short-term interest rates will remain low, describing such forward guidance as potentially confusing.

‘FED DOESN’T KNOW’

“You can’t expect the Fed to spell out what it’s going to do. Why? Because it doesn’t know,” he said at a conference in September, according to the Wall Street Journal. “It’s a mistake to try and get too precise.”

Fischer’s experience on Wall Street, while potentially a political liability, could prove valuable for the Fed, which lacks officials with experience in the financial markets that it must manage and regulate.

Fischer “has unrivaled international expertise and is a seasoned crisis-manager — complementing Yellen, who has much less experience in these areas,” Krishna Guha, head of central bank strategy at the financial services firm International Strategy and Investment, wrote in a client note.

Fischer stepped down in June after eight years as the leader of Israel’s central bank. He drew wide praise for helping to shelter the Israeli economy from the global financial crisis, in part by moving quickly to cut interest rates.

The Israeli economy grew during each of Fischer’s eight years as the bank’s governor, even as most developed economies collapsed into deep recessions. When Israel’s strength attracted a surge of foreign investment, Fischer was again quick to respond, building up foreign reserves to limit the rise of the shekel and protect Israeli exporters.

He also shepherded passage of a law that limited his own power by creating a six-person committee to manage monetary policy.

Fischer may be better known for the students he taught as a professor of economics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology beginning in the late 1970s. In addition to Bernanke, the list includes European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard and Gregory Mankiw, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under former US president George W. Bush.

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