NEW YORK / ABU DHABI (Reuters) — Ben Bernanke earned more in 40 minutes on Tuesday than he made all of
last year as head of the U.S. Federal Reserve.
Bernanke was paid at least $250,000 for his first public speaking
engagement, in Abu Dhabi, since stepping down in January, according
to sources familiar with the matter. That compares to his 2013
paycheck of $199,700, and the appearance was only the first of three
around the world this week.
Bernanke's public post-Fed debut was a departure from the private
audiences that his predecessor Alan Greenspan addressed shortly
after he handed over the central bank's reins in 2006. In his
remarks, Bernanke recounted the Fed's response to the 2007-2009
financial crisis, an issue he is exploring for a book he plans to
shop around to publishers.
In hitting the speaking circuit, Bernanke is following a well-trod
path of top public servants cashing in on the demand for the
insights they can offer. In the case of a one-time Fed chairman,
those insights could potentially be market-moving.
And given that his successor, Janet Yellen, has vowed to stay the
course he set, investors could view him as a weather vane for the
world's most powerful central bank.
"He will obviously be enjoying the fruits of the free market," said
Jan Baran, a partner and head of the election law and government
ethics group at Washington law firm Wiley Rein LLP. "He will
personally experience supply and demand."
Lawyers and agents say Bernanke, 60, should be able to command
around $250,000 per speech for a while to come.
The paycheck "sounds reasonable to me," said one speaking-circuit
agent who did not want to be named. Bernanke could have a "very long
shelf life," he added.
While the fee launches him into the upper echelons of sought-after
speakers, it leaves him well short of former President Bill Clinton — the gold standard of Americans turning charisma into cash — who
has, by some estimates, earned two or even three times that much for
some appearances in recent years.
"He's free to offer his own views either historical or
forward-looking," said Baran, when asked about the ethics of
Bernanke cashing in on his eight years as Fed chairman. "Nothing
sounds illegal or unethical and in fact it sounds fairly routine."
As Bernanke joked on Tuesday: "I can say whatever I want."
Not always, as his predecessor learned.
Greenspan drew criticism for giving high-paying investors a
potential leg up on their competitors with closed-door remarks about
interest rates shortly after he left office, and for comments in
March 2007 on the probability of a U.S. recession that roiled
financial markets even as Bernanke was reassuring investors about
At the conference sponsored by the National Bank of Abu Dhabi <NBAD.AD>,
attendees paid $2,000 each to listen to Bernanke and other speakers,
including former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers. Greenspan
garnered a similar fee in the United Arab Emirates capital in 2008.
Bernanke, who is now a distinguished fellow at the Washington-based
Brookings Institution think-tank, did not discuss monetary policy,
and only brushed on prospects for the U.S. economy. Instead, he
choose to elaborate on his experience as chairman, acknowledging the
Fed could have done more to battle the financial crisis.
Questions from the audience were relatively soft, leading to a
discussion about family and baseball. On Wednesday, Bernanke speaks
at a Johannesburg forum hosted by the financial firm Discovery
Limited, and on Friday he will discuss the U.S. energy boom at a
conference hosted by Siemens and IHS in Houston.
Through a Brookings spokeswoman, Bernanke declined to comment on his
Greenspan took to the speaking circuit one week after departing
office in January 2006 with an appearance at a private dinner hosted
by Lehman Brothers. That brought in a reported $250,000, while a
private telechat with investors in Japan that same day brought in
Greenspan's take on that first day is equivalent to $433,000 today
after adjusting for inflation.
For his planned memoir, Bernanke is being represented by Robert
Barnett, the Washington-based attorney who also handled Greenspan,
according to a source familiar with the situation. Bernanke plans to
meet publishers soon to discuss the book.
While it is unclear how large of a cash advance Bernanke is seeking,
Greenspan clinched $8 million.
Former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who is also publishing a
book, made $400,000 from three speeches to financial firms,
according to the Financial Times.
After handing the reins to Greenspan in 1987, former chairman Paul
Volcker also hit the speaking circuit after learning, he later
recounted, that he could make a year's salary — about $80,000 for
the Fed chief at the time — in a speech or two.
(Additional reporting by Ann Saphir in
San Francisco and Martin Dokoupil and Stanley Carvalho in Abu Dhabi,
editing by Tim Ahmann and Ross Colvin)