“In 2008 the problem was that major financial firms were facing runs,” he said, and therefore needed cash. “In this situation, the nonfinancial corporates are where the problem is — that is, think about an airline or a restaurant” that is unable to make payroll.
When it comes to preventing such disruptions, Mr. Bernanke said, “that is something, in the first line of defense, that Congress can do.”
The Fed did some lending aimed at nonfinancial companies — including through its commercial paper funding facility and the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility, which helped meet household and small-business credit needs — and authority for those programs still exists. For corporate bailouts, Mr. Bernanke said, lawmakers should be the first line of defense.
“It’s more democratic and accountable if Congress were to take the lead,” he said.
Henry M. Paulson Jr., who was President George W. Bush’s Treasury secretary in 2008, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last week that one of the lessons from that crisis was that the executive branch might need more authority from Congress to take quick action.
“Notwithstanding tensions between the parties and between the branches, it may be necessary to give the administration broad authority and flexibility to act, within the parameters and oversight structure set by the legislature,” Mr. Paulson wrote. “Congress can’t design and implement every stimulus program or turn on a dime to give new authorities to the executive when facts on the ground change.”
Hal Scott, an emeritus professor at Harvard Law School and the director of the nonprofit Committee on Capital Markets Regulation, said the Fed must restore its ability to be the world’s most powerful lender of last resort. It was unfortunate that such authorities needed to be reinstated amid a crisis, he said.
“It would have been better to do it before the crisis,” Mr. Scott said. “When you get into a crisis and you do it, there’s a concern that you’re sending a panic signal — that we’ve got to do this, we need this power.”