April 1, 2020

Federal Reserve Transcripts Open Window on 2007 Housing Crisis

Officials decided not to cut interest rates. The Fed did not even mention housing in a statement announcing its decision. The economy was growing, and a transcript of the meeting that the Fed published on Friday shows officials were deeply skeptical that problems rooted in housing foreclosures could cause a broader crisis.

“My own bet is the financial market upset is not going to change fundamentally what’s going on in the real economy,” William Poole, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, told his colleagues at the meeting.

That was on a Tuesday. By Thursday, the European Central Bank was offering emergency loans to continental banks, the Fed was following suit, and an alarmed Mr. Poole had persuaded the board of the St. Louis Fed to support a reduction in the interest rate on such loans. The somnolent Fed was lurching into action.

“The market is not operating in a normal way,” the Fed chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, told colleagues on a hastily convened conference call the next morning. Mr. Bernanke, a former college professor and a student of financial crises, was typically understated as he explained that the Fed was pumping money into the financial system because private investors were fleeing. “It’s a question of market functioning, not a question of bailing anybody out,” he said. “That’s really where we are right now.”

More than five years later, the Fed continues to prop up the financial system, and the transcripts of the 2007 meetings, released after a standard five-year delay, provide fresh insight into the decisions made at the outset of its great intervention.

They show that Mr. Bernanke and his colleagues continued to wrestle with misgivings about the need for action, because at the time there was little evidence of a broader economic downturn. Several officials worried that the economy would instead overheat, causing inflation to rise. By December, as the Fed began to act with consistent force, the economy was already in recession.

Officials lacked clear information, relying on anecdotes like a reported conversation with a Wal-Mart executive who said Mexican immigrants were sending less money home. They were also limited by economic models that could not simulate the problems that seemed to be unfolding.

“This may be a situation in which you will have to resolve your ambivalence quickly,” Timothy F. Geithner, then president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, warned in September. “You may not be able to resolve it.”

They questioned, too, the Fed’s ability to stimulate the economy, an issue that is still at the center of the debate about its policies.

“There’s no guarantee whatsoever that this thing will do what we’re trying to do,” Donald Kohn, then the Fed’s vice chairman, said at a meeting later in August. As the Fed debated a strategy to encourage bank lending, he said, “I just think it’s worth giving it a try under the circumstances.”

But eventually, Mr. Bernanke and his colleagues concluded that they could see the future, that they did not like what they saw and that it was time to act.

“At the time of our last meeting, I held out hope that the financial turmoil would gradually ebb and the economy might escape without serious damage,” Janet L. Yellen, then president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, said in December. “Subsequent developments have severely shaken that belief. The possibilities of a credit crunch developing and of the economy slipping into a recession seem all too real.”

The Fed’s eventual response, which it expanded significantly in 2008 and 2009, is now widely credited with preventing an even more catastrophic financial crisis and a deeper recession. It is not clear that quicker or stronger action in the fall of 2007 would have made a big difference. Critics focus instead on the Fed’s earlier failure to keep banks healthy and to prevent abusive mortgage lending, and on its later role in allowing the collapse of the investment bank Lehman Brothers.

“The outcome would have been different only if the Fed and others had reacted back in 2004, 2005, 2006” to curtail subprime mortgage lending, Mr. Poole, now a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, said on Friday in an interview on CNBC.

The transcripts show that the Fed entered 2007 still deeply complacent about the housing market. Officials knew that people were losing their homes. They knew that subprime lenders were blinking out of business with each passing week. But they did not understand the implications for the rest of the nation.

“The impact on the broader economy and financial markets of the problems in the subprime market seems likely to be contained,” Mr. Bernanke said in March.

Officials said at the time that they took particular comfort in the health of the largest banks. Even as the housing market deteriorated, the Fed approved acquisitions by some of the banks with the largest exposure to subprime mortgages, like Citigroup, Bank of America and the Cleveland-based National City.

Annie Lowrey contributed reporting from Washington.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/19/business/economy/fed-transcripts-open-a-window-on-2007-crisis.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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