The Courage to Act: A Memoir of a Crisis and Its Aftermath

And I was shocked when a high school friend, someone I thought of as a “nice kid,” expressed satisfaction at the assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968.

Another contentious issue concerned how to treat countries that, even after rigorous austerity, were unable to pay their debts. Should they be bailed out by other eurozone members and the International Monetary Fund? Or should private lenders, many of them European banks, bear some of the losses as well? The situation was analogous to the question of whether to impose losses on the senior creditors of Washington Mutual during the crisis. We (Tim, especially) had opposed that, because we feared that it would fan the panic and increase contagion. For similar reasons, we opposed forcing private creditors to bear losses if a eurozone country defaulted. Jean-Claude Trichet strongly agreed with us, though he opposed other U.S. positions. (In particular, he did not see much scope for monetary or fiscal policy to help the eurozone economy, preferring to focus on budget balancing and structural reforms.) On the issue of country default, though, Jean-Claude’s worry, like ours, was that, once the genie was out of the bottle, lenders’ confidence in other vulnerable European borrowers would evaporate.

As the joke about the MIT-Harvard divide went: A popular grocery store is situated about halfway between the two schools. A sign in front of the store advertised, “5 Cans of Soup for $1.” A student walks in and asks, “How much for 10 cans?” The clerk replies, “Are you from Harvard and can’t count or from MIT and can’t read?

Barney Frank wanted to know where the Fed was going to get the $85 billion to lend to AIG. I didn’t think this was the time to explain the mechanics of creating bank reserves. I said, “We have $800 billion,” referring to the pre-crisis size of the Fed’s balance sheet. Barney looked stunned. He didn’t see why the Fed should have that kind of money at its disposal.

Economists are criticized for not being able to predict the future, but, because the data are incomplete and subject to revision, we cannot even be sure what happened in the recent past. Noisy data make effective policymaking all the more difficult.

I believe that the many administration officials, lawmakers, and regulatory policymakers—and their staffs—who poured a year and a half of prodigious work into the legislation had been guided, knowingly or not, by a simultaneously high-minded and pragmatic sentiment that Woodrow Wilson voiced before he launched the effort that would establish the Federal Reserve System. “We shall deal with our economic system as it is and as it may be modified, not as it might be if we had a clean sheet of paper to write upon; and step by step we shall make it what it should be,” Wilson said in his first inaugural address. Wilson’s words continued to make good sense a century later.

I exaggerate only slightly when I tell audiences that, if they are impressed with Congress’s management of the federal budget, they should support audit-the-Fed legislation to give Congress the responsibility for making monetary policy as well.

If we acted, nobody would thank us. But if we did not act, who would? Making politically unpopular decisions for the long-run benefit of the country is the reason the Fed exists as a politically independent central bank. It was created for precisely this purpose: to do what must be done—what others cannot or will not do.

If you’ve got a squirt gun in your pocket, you may have to take it out. If you’ve got a bazooka, and people know you’ve got it, you may not have to take it out,” he said. Sometimes market fears can be self-fulfilling, and a strong demonstration can avoid the worst outcomes. I was reminded of the military doctrine of “overwhelming force” as the way to prompt quick surrender and minimize casualties.

I had become a Great Depression buff in the way that other people are Civil War buffs, reading not only about the economics of the period but about the politics, sociology, and history as well.

In all crises, there are those who act and those who fear to act. The Federal Reserve, born of the now little-known Panic of 1907, failed its first major test in the 1930s. Its leaders and the leaders of other central banks around the world remained passive in the face of ruinous deflation and financial collapse. The result was a global Great Depression, breadlines, and 25 percent unemployment in the United States, and the rise of fascist dictatorships abroad. Seventy-five years later, the Federal Reserve—the institution that I have dedicated the better part of my adult life to studying and serving—confronted similar challenges in the crisis of 2007–2009 and its aftermath. This time, we acted.

In response to current events, people often reach for historical analogies, and this occasion was no exception. The trick is to choose the right analogy. In August 2007, the analogies that came to mind—both inside and outside the Fed—were October 1987, when the Dow Jones industrial average had plummeted nearly 23 percent in a single day, and August 1998, when the Dow had fallen 11.5 percent over three days after Russia defaulted on its foreign debts. With help from the Fed, markets had rebounded each time with little evident damage to the economy. Not everyone viewed these interventions as successful, though. In fact, some viewed the Fed’s actions in the fall of 1998—three quarter-point reductions in the federal funds rate—as an overreaction that helped fuel the growing dot-com bubble. Others derided what they perceived to be a tendency of the Fed to respond too strongly to price declines in stocks and other financial assets, which they dubbed the “Greenspan put.” (A put is an options contract that protects the buyer against loss if the price of a stock or other security declines.) Newspaper opinion columns in August 2007 were rife with speculation that Helicopter Ben would provide a similar put soon. In arguing against Fed intervention, many commentators asserted that investors had grown complacent and needed to be taught a lesson. The cure to the current mess, this line of thinking went, was a repricing of risk, meaning a painful reduction in asset prices—from stocks to bonds to mortgage-linked securities. “Credit panics are never pretty, but their virtue is that they restore some fear and humility to the marketplace,” the Wall Street Journal had editorialized, in arguing for no rate cut at the August 7 FOMC meeting.

In retrospect, I think our view of market expectations was too dependent on our survey of securities dealers. Futures markets gave us a reliable read of where markets thought the federal funds rate was going—but not for our securities purchases. For that, economists at the New York Fed asked their counterparts at the securities firms, who paid careful attention to every nuance of Fed policymakers’ public statements. In effect, our PhD economists surveyed their PhD economists. It was a little like looking in a mirror. It didn’t tell us what the rank-and-file traders were thinking. Many traders, apparently, didn’t pay much attention to their economists and were betting our purchases would continue more or less indefinitely. Some called it “QE-ternity” or “QE-infinity.” Their assumption was unreasonable and entirely inconsistent with what we had been saying. Nevertheless, some investors had evidently established market positions based on it. Now, like Metternich, they looked at our statements about securities purchases and asked, “What do they mean by that?” Their conclusion, despite the plain meaning of what I said at the press conference, was that we were signaling an earlier increase in our federal funds rate target. They sold their Treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities, driving up long-term interest rates.

Ironically, some of the same critics who said we were hurting savers also said that our policies were making rich people richer. (Since rich people save more than everyone else, apparently we were both hurting and helping these folks.) The critics based their argument on the fact that lower interest rates tend to raise prices for assets such as stocks and houses. Wealthy people own more stocks and real estate than the nonwealthy. However, this argument misses the fact that lower interest rates also reduce the returns that the wealthy earn on their assets. The better way to look at the distributional effect of monetary policy is to compare changes in the income flowing from capital investments with the income from labor. As it turns out, easier monetary policy tends to affect capital and labor incomes fairly similarly. Most importantly in a weak economy, it promotes job creation, which especially helps the middle class.

later paper, which I wrote with Princeton historian Harold James, supported my interpretation of the Depression in an international context. We looked at the experience of twenty-two countries during the Depression and found, basically, that two factors dictated the severity of the economic downturn in each country. The first was the length of time the country stuck with the gold standard. (Countries that abandoned gold earlier were able to allow their money supplies to grow and thereby escape deflation.) That finding was in keeping with Friedman and Schwartz’s emphasis on the money supply. The second factor was the severity of the country’s banking crisis, consistent with my view of the importance of credit as well as money.

Life is unpredictable,” I told them, thinking of both my own career path and the economy and financial system’s roller-coaster ride over the past seven and a half years. I also gave them a working definition of my chosen profession: “Economics is a highly sophisticated field of thought that is superb at explaining to policymakers precisely why the choices they made in the past were wrong. About the future, not so much.

Meanwhile, journalists and traders speculated feverishly on when “tapering” would begin. That was the term the press had affixed to a strategy that involved gradual reductions in our securities purchases rather than a sudden stop. Though I had used it, I didn’t particularly like it, and I tried to encourage others on the FOMC to use alternatives. “Tapering” implied that, once we had begun slowing purchases, we would reduce them along a predetermined glide path. Instead, I wanted to convey that the pace of purchases could vary, depending on the speed of progress toward our labor market objective and on whether the risks of the purchases were starting to outweigh the benefits. As usual, though, I had little influence on the terminology the press chose to use.

Most notably, FDR defied the orthodoxy of his time by abandoning the gold standard in a series of steps in 1933. With the money supply no longer constrained by the amount of gold held by the government, deflation stopped almost immediately. Roosevelt also quelled the raging financial crisis by temporarily shutting down the nation’s banks (a bank holiday), permitting only those judged sound to reopen, and by pushing legislation establishing federal deposit insurance. These measures brought intense criticism from orthodox economists and conservative business leaders. And they were indeed experiments. But, collectively, they worked.

On August 5, the Standard & Poor’s rating agency—citing, among other factors, the prospect of future budget brinkmanship—downgraded U.S. government debt to one notch below the top AAA rating. The rating agency had made an egregious error that caused it to overstate the estimated ten-year deficit by $2 trillion, which the Treasury quickly pointed out. S&P acknowledged the error but asserted that the mistake did not affect its judgment of the government’s creditworthiness. I had the feeling that S&P wanted to show it was not intimidated. The episode highlighted the odd relationship between governments and rating agencies: Governments regulate the rating agencies, but the rating agencies have the power to downgrade governments’ debt.

On September 12, in a report to the British parliament, Mervyn, without naming names, sharply criticized the ECB and the Fed. “The provision of such liquidity support . . . encourages excessive risk-taking, and sows the seeds of future financial crises,” he wrote. In other words, there would be no Bank of England put. Mervyn’s concern explained why the Bank of England had not joined the ECB and the Swiss National Bank in proposing currency swap agreements with the Fed. By the time of our September 18 announcement, however, Mervyn appeared to have changed his mind. On the day after our meeting, the Bank of England for the first time announced it would inject longer-term funds (10 billion pounds, or roughly $20 billion, at a three-month term) into British money markets. Later in the crisis I observed, “There are no atheists in foxholes or ideologues in a financial crisis.” Mervyn had joined his fellow central bankers in the foxhole.

Our constant concern, in writing regulations, was to preserve financial stability without constraining credit or economic growth any more than necessary. Two years earlier, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon had asked me at a public forum whether we had calculated the cumulative economic effect of all the new rules we were putting into place. We did as a matter of course attempt to analyze the costs and benefits of individual rules, and even groups of related rules, but I told him that a comprehensive calculation wasn’t practical. My answer wasn’t very satisfying, and Jamie’s willingness to challenge me in public on behalf of his fellow bankers made him a short-lived hero on Wall Street. A better answer would have been to point out to Jamie the immeasurable economic and human cost of failing to write adequately tough rules and permitting a repeat of the crisis we had recently endured.

Our thinking diverged in several areas. I championed, and he distrusted, formal policy frameworks like inflation targeting, which were intended to improve the Fed’s transparency. He had even made jokes about his own strained relationship with transparency. He told a Senate committee in 1987, “Since becoming a central banker, I have learned to mumble with great incoherence. If I seem unduly clear to you, you must have misunderstood what I said.” Also, he did not put much stock in the ability of bank regulation and supervision to keep banks out of trouble. He believed that, so long as banks had enough of their own money at stake, in the form of capital, market forces would deter them from unnecessarily risky lending. And, while I had argued that regulation and supervision should be the first line of defense against asset-price bubbles, he was more inclined to keep hands off and use after-the-fact interest rate cuts to cushion the economic consequences of a burst bubble.

Reich would soon back a request from Angelo Mozilo, Countrywide’s white-haired, unnaturally tanned CEO. Mozilo wanted an exemption from the Section 23A rules that prevented Countrywide’s holding company from tapping the discount window through a savings institution it owned. Sheila and the FDIC were justifiably skeptical, as was Janet Yellen at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, in whose district Countrywide’s headquarters were located. Lending indirectly to Countrywide would be risky. It might well already be insolvent and unable to pay us back. The day after the discount rate cut, Don Kohn relayed word that Janet was recommending a swift rejection of Mozilo’s request for a 23A exemption. She believed, Don said, that Mozilo “is in denial about the prospects for his company and it needs to be sold.” Countrywide found its reprieve in the form of a confidence-boosting $2 billion equity investment from Bank of America on August 22—not quite the sale that Janet thought was needed, but the first step toward an eventual acquisition by Bank of America. Countrywide formally withdrew its request for a 23A exemption on Thursday August 30 as I was flying to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to speak at the Kansas City Fed’s annual economic symposium. The theme of the conference, chosen long before, was “Housing, Housing Finance, and Monetary Policy.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described socialist who caucused with the Democrats, seemed to see the world as a vast conspiracy of big corporations and the wealthy.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described socialist who caucused with the Democrats, seemed to see the world as a vast conspiracy of big corporations and the wealthy. (Corporations and the wealthy have lots of power, certainly, but in the real world most bad things happen because of ignorance, incompetence, or bad luck, not as the result of grand conspiracies.)

(The belief that Jews have horns apparently derives from a mistranslation from Hebrew of a verse in Exodus, compounded by a Michelangelo sculpture that portrays Moses with horns.) As I grew older, I became aware that many of my peers, evangelical Christians, believed as a matter of doctrine—if

They also reminded me of a story Dallas Fed president Richard Fisher included in one of his speeches about the early nineteenth-century French diplomat Talleyrand and his archrival, Prince Metternich of Austria. When Talleyrand died, Metternich was reported to have said, “I wonder what he meant by that?” It seemed that no matter what I said or how plainly I said it, the markets tried to divine some hidden meaning.

Understandably, given public anger at bailouts, support had been gathering from both the right and the left for breaking up the largest institutions. There were also calls to reinstate the Depression-era Glass-Steagall law, which Congress had repealed in 1999. Glass-Steagall had prohibited the combination within a single firm of commercial banking (mortgage and business lending, for example) and investment banking (such as bond underwriting). The repeal of Glass-Steagall had opened the door to the creation of “financial supermarkets,” large and complex firms that offered both commercial and investment banking services. The lack of a new Glass-Steagall provision in the administration’s plan seemed to me particularly easy to defend. A Glass-Steagall–type statute would have offered little benefit during the crisis—and in fact would have prevented the acquisition of Bear Stearns by JPMorgan and of Merrill Lynch by Bank of America, steps that helped stabilize the two endangered investment banks. More importantly, most of the institutions that became emblematic of the crisis would have faced similar problems even if Glass-Steagall had remained in effect. Wachovia and Washington Mutual, by and large, got into trouble the same way banks had gotten into trouble for generations—by making bad loans. On the other hand, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers were traditional Wall Street investment firms with minimal involvement in commercial banking. Glass-Steagall would not have meaningfully changed the permissible activities of any of these firms. An exception, perhaps, was Citigroup—the banking, securities, and insurance conglomerate whose formation in 1998 had lent impetus to the repeal of Glass-Steagall. With that law still in place, Citi likely could not have become as large and complex as it did. I agreed with the administration’s decision not to revive Glass-Steagall. The decision not to propose breaking up some of the largest institutions seemed to me a closer call. The truth is that we don’t have a very good understanding of the economic benefits of size in banking. No doubt, the largest firms’ profitability is enhanced to some degree by their political influence and markets’ perception that the government will protect them from collapse, which gives them an advantage over smaller firms. And a firm’s size contributes to the risk that it poses to the financial system. But surely size also has a positive economic value—for example, in the ability of a large firm to offer a wide range of services or to operate at sufficient scale to efficiently serve global nonfinancial companies. Arbitrary limits on size would risk destroying that economic value while sending jobs and profits to foreign competitors. Moreover, the size of a financial firm is far from the only factor that determines whether it poses a systemic risk. For example, Bear Stearns, which was only a quarter the size of the firm that acquired it, JPMorgan Chase, wasn’t too big to fail; it was too interconnected to fail. And severe financial crises can occur even when most financial institutions are small.

Unlike my predecessor, I intended to use email. To avoid being deluged, I needed a pseudonym. Andy Jester, an IT specialist for the Board, suggested Edward Quince. He had noticed the word “Quince” on a software box and thought “Edward” had a nice ring. It seemed fine to me, so Edward Quince it was. The Board phone book listed him as a member of the security team. The pseudonym remained confidential while I was chairman. Whenever we released my emails—at congressional request or under the Freedom of Information Act, for example—we blacked out the name.

We called it the Maturity Extension Program. The press, not quite accurately, nicknamed it “Operation Twist,” after a Fed program of the same name during the early 1960s. Back then, under the leadership of William McChesney Martin, the Fed bought longer-term securities and sold shorter-term securities in an attempt to “twist the yield curve”—that is, lower long-term interest rates (to stimulate spending and investment) and raise short-term rates (to protect the value of the dollar, supposedly).‡ This time, our goal wasn’t to move short-term and long-term rates in opposite directions but to bring long rates closer to rock-bottom short rates. With so many reserves already in the banking system and our promise to hold rates at zero at least through mid-2013, we saw little danger that selling short-term securities would lead to a significant rise in short-term rates. Thus, we expected our purchases under the Maturity Extension Program to have effects similar to those of our purchases under QE2.