Mere Mortals at the Fed

The secrecy of the Federal Reserve is legendary, but pressure in recent years has led to some opening up. Already in the last 12 months, we’ve seen some eye-popping records of who received credit during the 2008-09 credit crunch. We’ve seen lists of institutions that the Fed favors, and these lists have confirmed the worst fears. Hint: It’s all about the big banks.

But now we get the really fun stuff. The transcripts, released five years after the fact, of the open market committee meetings provide a fascinating look into how the Fed was thinking about the world just before the greatest market meltdown in modern times. No one at the 2006 meetings saw it coming. Thousands of market commentators, economists and bankers saw it coming, but the Fed — the all-wise and all-knowing Fed — did not see it coming.

That the Fed actually played the largest role in producing the bubble that turned to bust only adds to the irony that the Fed was clueless about the emerging reality on the ground. Ben Bernanke saw some softening in home prices and needed correction to the run-up, but he was somehow sure that there would be a soft landing.

The meetings opened that year with Alan Greenspan at his final meeting and saying his goodbyes. There was some talk about long-term pension problems. Greenspan dismissed it, pointing out that, “We have enough trouble forecasting nine months.” Everyone laughed. Ha ha. Thanks for admitting this — in private.

At this final meeting, the group also heard one of the clearest statements in all the transcripts that there were troubles on the horizon. Fed chief economist David Stockton stated very clearly: “As I contemplate our outlook and the things that I worry about the most on the domestic side of the economy, I’d say the housing sector is clearly one of the biggest risks that you’re currently confronting.”

But the gloom didn’t last long, and the meeting ended with a wildly upbeat report from none other than Timothy Geithner, now secretary of the Treasury. He begins with an over-the-top tribute to Greenspan (“I’d like the record to show that I think you’re pretty terrific”) and continues on with an upbeat forecast of endless growth and happiness forever. Even though he was spectacularly wrong, he is now running the show.

The opening meeting with Bernanke set the tone for all the meetings that followed. Stockton probably sensed that he might be free to speak his mind for the first time in years. He compared the situation in housing to riding a roller coaster blindfolded. “We sense that we’re going over the top, but we just don’t know what lies below.”

But Bernanke intervened to stop all such crazy talk. “I think we are unlikely to see growth being derailed by the housing market,” he said. He assured all present that “the strong fundamentals support a relatively soft landing in housing.”

Ever the pleaser, Geithner agreed. “Equity prices and credit spreads suggest considerable confidence in the prospect for growth,” he said. “Overall financial conditions seem pretty supportive of the expansion.”

Later that summer, Fed Gov. Susan Bies tried again to introduce some caution, pointing out that the banks were all using models that presume falling interest rates and rising home prices. This has allowed many American families to depend on home equity loans more than they should. “It is not clear what may happen when either of those trends turns around,” she cautioned.

Once again, Bernanke smacked down the naysayer. “So far, we are seeing, at worst, an orderly decline in the housing market…As I noted last time, some correction in this market is a healthy thing, and our goal should not be to try to prevent that correction, but rather to ensure that the correction does not overly influence growth in the rest of the economy.”

From the point of view of economic theory, there is an interesting comment made by Dallas Fed president Richard Fisher. He pointed that everyone on the planet was talking about the housing problem, but he cited this as a reason not to be concerned. “If we have not discounted what has been happening in the housing market, we have been living on Mars.”

In other words, he was saying that if something awful were going to happen, it would already have happened. Because everyone was talking about something meant that the awareness of the risk was surely already built into the existing data.

This amounts to a reversal of the old joke about the economist who refused to admit that there is a $20 bill on the ground in front of him on grounds that if the bill were there, someone would have already picked it up. In the same way, if this economist were going to be hit by an oncoming truck, it would have already hit him.

The year ended with Gov. Bies again warning that the risk is much more serious than anyone had yet acknowledged. “A lot of the private mortgages that have been securitized during the past few years really do have much more risk than the investors have been focusing on,” she said. But Bernanke shoots her down yet again: There will be a “soft landing” for the economy.

Look, there is no crime in not knowing the future. No one knows: no palm reader, no philosopher, no economist. You can assemble all the data the world has to offer, but it tells you only about the past. Forecasts are fine, but they are always speculations. The people assembled in the Fed’s meeting room were doing forecasts not unlike what every business in the world does every day. Sometimes they are right, and sometimes they are not.

What is significant here is not that Bernanke did not see the future. The significance is that the power and responsibilities of the Federal Reserve itself are premised on the idea that somehow its managers know something that we do not. They are charged not with planning the past that they can know, but with planning a future that they cannot know. This is the essential error of the central bank’s planning powers.

And there is another problem. The Fed has an institutional bias, and this is clear from the transcripts. It is especially obtuse in taking note of risks and problems that the Fed itself is responsible for creating. In this way, it is just like every other government agency. They all see problems in the world but those that the institution itself caused.

The congratulatory praise of Greenspan at that opening meeting of 2006 is a metaphor for the arrogance and self-congratulatory culture of the entire institution. The Fed imagines itself to be the solution for every problem. The truth is that the Fed itself is the source of a vast number of our problems.

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