WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve agonized in 2008 over how far to go to stop a financial crisis that threatened to cause a recession and at times struggled to recognize its speed and magnitude.
“We’re crossing certain lines. We’re doing things we haven’t done,” Chairman Ben Bernanke said as the Fed met in emergency session March 10 and launched never-before-taken steps to steady teetering Wall Street firms, among a series of unorthodox moves that year to calm investors and aid the economy.
“On the other hand, this financial crisis is now in its eighth month, and the economic outlook has worsened quite significantly.”
The Fed on Friday released hundreds of pages of transcripts covering its 14 meetings during 2008 — eight regularly scheduled meetings and six emergency sessions. The Fed releases full transcripts of each year’s policy meetings after a five-year lag.
The 2008 transcripts cover the most tumultuous period of the crisis, including the collapse and rescue of investment bank Bear Stearns, the government takeover of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the fateful decision to let investment bank Lehman Brothers fold in the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history and the bailout of insurer American International Group.
For all its aggressive steps in 2008, the transcripts show the Fed failing at times to grasp the size of the catastrophe they were dealing with. Bernanke and his top lieutenants often expressed puzzlement that they weren’t managing to calm panicky investors.
As late as Sept. 16, a day after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, Bernanke declared, “I think that our policy is looking actually pretty good.”
The Fed declined at that meeting to cut its benchmark short-term rate. Yet three weeks later, after the Fed had rescued AIG, Bernanke felt compelled to call an emergency conference call. In it, he won approval for a half-point rate cut.
‘On the slopes’
Early in the year, some Fed officials had yet to appreciate the gravity of the crisis. In January, Frederic Mishkin, a Fed governor, missed an emergency conference call because he was “on the slopes.”
“I think in Idaho somewhere,” Bernanke said.
The crisis had been building for months. In the Jan. 21 conference call, Bernanke rallied support for a deep cut in interest rates. He warned that market turmoil reflected investors’ concerns that “the United States is in for a deep and protracted recession.”
Bernanke apologized for convening the call on the Martin Luther King holiday. But he felt the urgency of the crisis required the Fed to act before its regularly scheduled meeting the next week. It approved a cut of three-fourths of a percentage point in its benchmark for short-term rates.
Yellen lended support
The transcripts show that Bernanke enjoyed the support of Janet Yellen, who succeeded him this month as Fed chair, for the unconventional policy actions he was pushing. At the time, Yellen was head of the Fed’s San Francisco regional bank.
At an Oct. 28-29 Fed meeting, Yellen noted the dire events that had occurred that fall. With a nod to Halloween, she said the Fed had received a “witch’s brew of news.”
Market conditions had “taken a ghastly turn for the worse,” she said. “It is becoming abundantly clear that we are in the midst of a serious global meltdown.”
The Fed’s moves failed to prevent colossal damage from the crisis. The U.S. economy sank into the worst recession since the 1930s. But Fed officials and many economists have argued that without the Fed’s aggressive actions, the Great Recession would have been more catastrophic, perhaps rivaling the Great Depression.