On Tuesday, Ben S. Bernanke spoke in Abu Dhabi; on Wednesday, he was in Johannesburg. By Friday, he was in Houston. That week in March was a particularly busy one for Bernanke, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve.
During his eight years as steward of the world’s largest economy, Bernanke’s salary was about $200,000 a year. Now he makes that in just a few hours speaking to bankers, hedge fund billionaires and leaders of industry. This year alone, he is poised to make millions of dollars from speaking engagements.
Bernanke is following a well-trodden path that his predecessor, Alan S. Greenspan, and other Washington policymakers have taken. On the speaking circuit, he is putting just one foot through the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street, being paid by financial firms but not employed by one.
Investors are dealing with an economy that is in large part the creature of Fed policies under Bernanke, and they are willing to pay top dollar for his words of wisdom as a result.
Bernanke has agreed to speak with a Middle Eastern bank, private equity firms and trade associations, as well as at investment bank get-togethers, charging his hosts fees that range from $200,000 in the United States to $400,000 for engagements in Asia.
While he has dined with hedge fund managers at small events arranged by investment and brokerage firms including JPMorgan Chase, some Wall Street firms have balked at the high fees.
“Chairman Bernanke decided after he left office, like most good civil servants, that he wanted to make a little bit of money and did the dinner circuit,” Michael E. Novogratz, a principal of Fortress Investment Group, told an audience of wealth managers at a conference in Las Vegas last week.
At his first of several dinners after retiring from the Fed in March, Bernanke spoke to a group of hedge fund managers, including Novogratz, at Le Bernardin in midtown Manhattan. The setting was so intimate that the group took up just one of the four-star restaurant’s three private dining rooms.
“At those dinners he gave credence to the idea that the Fed believed in lower potential GDP and lower potential inflation,” Novogratz said.
“I think that got through to the market and that was kind of the accelerator of this giant trade in fixed income that has happened,” he added, referring to an unexpected rally in government bonds. The market has rallied this year as investors, concerned that the economy will not grow as fast as expected, have sought safer assets like Treasury securities.
“I think that the markets and investors will put more credence on what Bernanke says,” said David Rosenberg, chief economist and strategist at Gluskin Sheff. Referring to Bernanke’s successor, Janet L. Yellen, Rosenberg added: “There is a pervasive belief that Bernanke and Yellen are joined at the hip.”
David A. Tepper, founder of the $20 billion hedge fund Appaloosa Management, who was also at the Le Bernardin dinner, expressed regret that he did not trade on Bernanke’s guidance at the dinner.
“He gave this stuff out but I didn’t realize what he was saying at the time, so I didn’t do a great trade,” Tepper said at the conference in Las Vegas last week.
For many investors, the big question is when and how quickly interest rates will rise. Some Wall Street firms like BTIG, the institutional brokerage that organized the Le Bernardin dinner, offer their top clients private dinners with important former officials like Bernanke to try to differentiate their offerings from those of their rivals.
But others are consciously passing up the opportunity to hire Bernanke. UBS and Goldman Sachs both considered his fees too high, according to two people briefed on the discussions between Bernanke’s representative and the banks but not authorized to speak about either publicly.
It is not unusual for senior government officials to join the speaking circuit or take lucrative jobs in the private sector after leaving public office.
Greenspan was hired to consult for the hedge fund Paulson & Co., Deutsche Bank, and the bond investment firm Pacific Investment Management Co. after stepping down as Fed chairman. After leaving the top job at Treasury, Timothy F. Geithner joined the private equity firm Warburg Pincus.
And Bernanke is free to speak about his views on the economy as long as he does not breach any confidentiality agreement.
“If they are saying something that they were saying as a public official, is there something wrong with that?” Greenspan said.
He also delivers pro bono speeches and does not always pocket all the fees, a spokeswoman for Bernanke at the Brookings Institution said. “In addition, he is donating hundreds of thousands to charity,” she added.
The Washington Speakers Bureau, which coordinates Bernanke’s speaking engagements, did not return calls.
Not everyone agrees with the fees that Bernanke charges.
“You can spend $250,000 for Bernanke’s time at a private dinner, or you could just sit down and read what people like Janet Yellen and Mark Carney have to say,” Rosenberg said, referring to the governor of the Bank of England. “You can actually do that for free and pretty much draw the same conclusions.”