Waiting for the Next Fed Apology

by: The Baseline Scenario

By Simon Johnson

In November 2002, Ben Bernanke apologized – for the Fed’s role in causing the Great Depression of the 1930s. “I would like to say to Milton [Friedman] and Anna [Schwartz]: Regarding the Great Depression. You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again” (conclusion of this speech).

Bernanke’s point, of course, is that the Fed tightened monetary policy inappropriately – and allowed banks to fail – in 1929-33. And much has been made of his strong focus, over the past year, on avoiding a repeat of those or closely related mistakes (including here).

But today we need a different kind of apology, or at least a statement of responsibility, from Ben Bernanke and the Fed.

From the Federal Open Market Committee meeting transcript of August 2003, we know that Bernanke said, “Despite the good news, I think it’s premature to conclude that we should not consider further rate cuts, if not at this meeting then at some time in the near future depending on how the data play out” (p.63).

He was concerned not just to keep interest rates low for a prolonged period but also to signal this to financial markets, “To the extent that we can sharpen our message that economic growth no longer implies an immediate and automatic policy tightening, we should make every effort to do so” (p.65; see also his role in the broader discussion around p.93).

This was, of course, at a time that the speculative fever and outright malpractice in the housing market was really taking off. The build-up of financial market risk was starting to head towards system-threatening dimensions. And many consumers were being set up for a trampling of epic proportions. It is striking there is barely a mention of these issues in the FOMC transcripts.

And that’s the issue. We can argue for a long time about whether the Fed should have tightened earlier. Defenders of the Fed will say the data were ambiguous – and will point to the serious discussion of these issues in the FOMC transcript.

We can also dispute whether or not the Fed should have said anything in public about the impending housing-financial-consumer-taxpayer doom, or tried to tighten regulation. “It’s not our job” or “we don’t have the powers,” or “the politicians wouldn’t have supported us” is what senior Fed people now whisper around Washington.

But this and other FOMC transcripts make it clear that the senior Fed decision makers were not even thinking about the first order financial sector issues. They weren’t aware of what the big investment banks were really doing – show me the intelligence reports before the FOMC or the analytical discussion that indicated any degree of worry. No doubt someone somewhere in the Federal Reserve system was thinking critically about finance – feel free to send me any relevant details - but from the point of view of evaluating the institution, it only counts if the top decision-making body at least has the issues on the table.

We have transcripts so far through the end of 2003. Others should be forthcoming soon; there is supposed to be only a 5 year lag in their publication. But, given their likely content, it would not be a surprise if the appearance of these transcripts slows down.

At this moment of potential regulatory reform, who within the Fed really wants us to know that their leadership in the Greenspan era completely framed the problem wrong, didn’t understand what was happening, and repeatedly, brazenly, and callously ignored the damage being done to consumers?

I fully understand that financial market considerations are not the established focus of central bank interest rate deliberations. But the scope and nature of such deliberations has changed a great deal since the founding of the Fed almost 100 years ago. As the economy changes, central banks have to adapt their conceptual frameworks and our broader regulatory frameworks need to change also. We’ve done this many times before, and we need to do it again.

Huge problems were missed by people using anachronistic conceptual frameworks. Those frameworks should change. This was the assessment of Ben Bernanke, building on Friedman and Schwartz, for 1929-33, and this should be our assessment today.

Our top monetary policy makers completely missed the true nature of the Great Bubble and its consequences, until it was far too late. They should apologize for that and we can start work on redesigning the institution, its decision-making, and how financial markets operate, to make sure it won’t happen again. And it would also be nice if the Fed could avoid adding insult to injury – and stop opposing the administration’s consumer protection proposals.

Hopefully, this time the Fed’s apology won’t take 70 years.