(Editor's note: To access some of these stories, registration or a subscription may be required. Please check the individual links for the site's policy.) Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke does not have foot-in-mouth disease, The Wall Street Journal would have us think this morning. Nor is he a bright academic who is adjusting from his initial befuddlement at how, as Fed chair, his words are heard, weighed and analyzed by an entire world, not just a roomful of post-pubescents. Rather, the Journal pontificates in pure apologist mode, when Bernanke took over from Alan Greenspan in February, he made some strategic changes that were "subtle but significant." Will someone please remove this bazooka from The Business Press Maven's mouth before he pulls the trigger? Well maybe, in debunking Page One articles like this that have the capacity to confuse investors, I do have something to live for. The story relies heavily on Mark Gertler, a New York University economist and close Bernanke friend, which means the notions Gertler was slinging could have been preapproved (if not prescribed) by Big Old Ben himself. Its basic gist was encapsulated in the headline: "The New Fed Chairman Hopes to Downplay Impact of His Words" and this line: "The new chairman is trying to depersonalize the Fed by making its decision-making more democratic and easier to understand." He is going to accomplish this, we are then told, by talking less and, instead, publishing clear forecasts and goals on everything from growth to ... inflation.
More on that old bugbear in a moment. Let me just say that never in the history of a free and open society have I seen transparency increased by less talk. And on those published, set-in-stone goals for inflation? Pardon me while I retrieve my bazooka. Loyal readers (yes, that means you mom) will remember that
the first thing The Business Press Maven ever wrote about Ben Bernanke was this: Initial coverage of him in the wake of his appointment was lame because it focused on what a great guy he was instead of picking apart his signature issue, inflation targets. An inflation target is a concept that could only be dreamed up by a tenured soul who spends the bulk of his time piling subsidized food on his plate in the faculty room. The concept posits (oh so wrongly) that in this world of many variables, a specific target for inflation can be set and kept. This is nonsense and Bernanke, to his credit, realized it would not fly in the real world. So he appeared to back off this pet issue in his congressional testimony. That was fine for most journalists, but The Business Press Maven highlighted the coy and slightly convoluted statement that made it only seem like he was backing off. Here we are all these months and botched public statements later (see, among others, the off-the-cuff remarks to Maria Bartiromo), and we may be headed toward inflation targets after all.
If you set targets, you don't have to explain and justify your decisions as you make them. There are essentially none to make, after the initial setting. The only problem is that the world, unlike academia, does not exist in a state of arrested adolescence. It's just too complex and fast-moving to stay any inflexibly set course. Bernanke's road back toward his dearly held inflation targets reminds me of some people's take on President George W. Bush's road to smaller government. Botch things from a managerial perspective so badly (see: Iraq, New Orleans) that people lose confidence in government management and yearn for what you wanted all along, a smaller government. Here, Bernanke botched the bedside manner part of his job so badly that people may long for a simple publication of goals. Only it ain't going to be that simple. Speaking of simpletons, Bernard Ebbers, former WorldCom chief thief, has exhausted his appeals and will be headed for Thursday night pepper steak at the Cook County slammer on Sept. 26. In an unfortunately related article, one of the most emailed stories from Time Magazine has to do with the push to change the law so that Ken Lay, now dead, can be prosecuted for his crimes against humanity and Enron. As much as, from an emotional standpoint, The Business Press Maven would like to see Mr. Lay lie in state in some prison yard for all eternity, a defendant must be able to contribute to his own defense. This push to prosecute corpses is dangerous and, ultimately, un-American. But nothing is more American than blowing off work to golf, which many leaders of public companies appear to be doing. Money reports that Golf Digest came out with its fifth biennial ranking of the best golfers among CEOs from Fortune 500 companies. Kudos to USA Today and Cnn.com, which both followed up with groaner leads that led into this important point: A lot of the good golfers listed have seen their company's stock price plunge. The Good Golfer, Bad Stock awards go out to CEOs from MGIC Investment Corp. ( MTIG), Dollar General ( DG), EGL ( EAGL) and more. The majority of the top 12 have seen share price underperform the S&P 500. No word on whether Bernanke has game.