Matthew O’Brien at The Atlantic has written a marvelous account of the bizarre deliberations of the Federal Open Market Committee at its meetings (June 25 and August 5) before the Lehman debacle on September 15 2008 and its meeting the next day on September 16. A few weeks ago, I wrote in half-seriousness a post attributing the 2008 financial crisis to ethanol because of the runup in corn and other grain prices in 2008 owing to the ethanol mandate and the restrictions on imported ethanol products. But ethanol, as several commenters pointed out, was only a part, probably a relatively small part, of the spike in commodities prices in the summer of 2008. Thanks to O’Brien’s careful reading of the recently released transcripts of the 2008 meetings of the FOMC, we now have a clear picture of how obsessed the FOMC was about inflation, especially the gang of four regional bank presidents, Charles Plosser, Richard Fisher, James Lacker, and Thomas Hoenig, supported to a greater or lesser extent by James Bullard and Kevin Warsh.
On the other hand, O’Brien does point out that two members of the FOMC, Eric Rosengren, President of the Boston Fed, and Fredric Mishkin of the Board of Governors, consistently warned of the dangers of a financial crisis, and consistently objected to and cogently punctured the hysterical inflation fears of the gang of four. It is somewhat, but only somewhat, reassuring that Janet Yellen was slightly more sensitive to the dangers of a financial crisis and less concerned about inflation than Ben Bernanke. Perhaps because he was still getting his feet wet as chairman, Bernanke seems to have been trying to articulate a position that could balance the opposing concerns of the FOMC membership, rather than leading the FOMC in the direction he thought best. While Yellen did not indulge the inflation phobia of the gang of four, she did not strongly support Rosengren and Mishkin in calling for aggressive action to avert the crisis that they clearly saw looming on the horizon.
Here are some highlights from O’Brien’s brilliant piece:
[FOMC Meeting] June 24-25, 2008: 468 mentions of inflation, 44 of unemployment, and 35 of systemic risks/crises
Those numbers pretty much tell you everything you need to know about what happened during the disastrous summer of 2008 at the Fed
Rosengren wasn’t nearly as concerned with 5 percent headline inflation—and with good reason. He reminded his colleagues that “monetary policy is unlikely to have much effect on food and energy prices,” that “total [inflation] has tended to converge to core, and not the opposite,” and that there was a “lack of an upward trend of wages and salaries.”
In short, inflation was high today, but it wouldn’t be tomorrow. They should ignore it. A few agreed. Most didn’t.
Mishkin, Fed Governor Donald Kohn, and then-San Francisco Fed chief Janet Yellen comprised Team: Ignore Inflation. They pointed out that core inflation hadn’t actually risen, and that “inflation expectations remain reasonably well-anchored.” The rest of the Fed, though, was eager to raise rates soon, if not right away. Philadelphia Fed president Charles Plosser recognized that core inflation was flat, but still thought they needed to get ready to tighten “or our credibility could soon vanish.” Fed Governor Kevin Warsh said that “inflation risks, in my view, continue to predominate as the greater risk to the economy,” because he thought headline would get passed into core inflation.
And let us not forget Richard Fisher of the Dallas Fed who provided badly needed comic relief.
And then there was Dallas Fed chief Richard Fisher, who had a singular talent for seeing inflation that nobody else could—a sixth sense, if you will. He was allergic to data. He preferred talking to CEOs instead. But, in Fisher’s case, the plural of anecdote wasn’t data. It was nonsense. He was worried about Frito-Lays increasing prices 9 percent, Budweiser increasing them 3.5 percent, and a small dry-cleaning chain in Dallas increasing them, well, an undisclosed amount. He even half-joked that the Fed was giving out smaller bottles of water, presumably to hide creeping inflation?
By the way, I notice that these little bottles of water have gotten smaller—this will be a Visine bottle at the next meeting. [Laughter]
But it was another member of the Gang of Four who warned ominously:
Richmond Fed president Jeffrey Lacker suggested, that “at some point we’re going to choose to let something disruptive happen.”
Now to the August meeting:
[FOMC Meeting] August 5, 2008: 322 mentions of inflation, 28 of unemployment, and 19 of systemic risks/crises.
Despite evidence that the inflationary blip of spring and summer was winding down, and the real economy was weakening, the Gang of Four continued to press their case for tougher anti-inflation measures. But only Rosengren and Mishkin spoke out against them.
But even though inflation was falling, it was a lonesome time to be a dove. As the Fed’s resident Cassandra, Rosengren tried to convince his colleagues that high headline inflation numbers “appear to be transitory responses to supply shocks that are not flowing through to labor markets.” In other words, inflation would come down on its own, and the Fed should focus on the credit crunch instead. Mishkin worried that “really bad things could happen” if “a shoe drops” and there was a “nasty, vicious spiral” between weak banks and a weak economy. Given this, he wanted to wait to tighten until inflation expectations “actually indicate there is a problem,” and not before.
But Richard Fisher was in no mood to worry about horror stories unless they were about runaway inflation:
The hawks didn’t want to wait. Lacker admitted that wages hadn’t gone up, but thought that “if we wait until wage rates accelerate or TIPS measures spike, we will have waited too long.” He wanted the Fed to “be prepared to raise rates even if growth is not back to potential, and even if financial markets are not yet tranquil.” In other words, to fight nonexistent wage inflation today to prevent possible wage inflation tomorrow, never mind the crumbling economy. Warsh, for his part, kept insisting that “inflation risks are very real, and I believe that these are higher than growth risks.” And Fisher had more”chilling anecdotes”—as Bernanke jokingly called them—about inflation. This time, the culprit was Disney World and its 5 percent price increase for single-day tickets.
The FOMC was divided, but the inflation-phobes held the upper hand. Unwilling to challenge them, Bernanke appeased them by promising that his statement about future monetary policy after the meeting would be “be slightly hawkish—to indicate a slight uplift in policy.”
Frightened by what he was hearing, Mishkin reminded his colleagues of some unpleasant monetary history:
Remember that in the Great Depression, when—I can’t use the expression because it would be in the transcripts, but you know what I’m thinking—something hit the fan, [laughter] it actually occurred close to a year after the initial negative shock.
Mishkin also reminded his colleagues that the stance of monetary policy cannot be directly inferred from the federal funds rate.
I just very much hope that this Committee does not make this mistake because I have to tell you that the situation is scary to me. I’m holding two houses right now. I’m very nervous.
And now to the September meeting, the day after Lehman collapsed:
[FOMC meeting] September 16, 2008: 129 mentions of inflation, 26 of unemployment, and 4 of systemic risks/crises
Chillingly, Lacker and Hoenig did a kind of victory dance about the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
Lacker had gotten the “disruptive” event he had wanted, and he was pretty pleased about it. “What we did with Lehman I obviously think was good,” he said, because it would “enhance the credibility of any commitment that we make in the future to be willing to let an institution fail.” Hoenig concurred that it was the “right thing,” because it would suck moral hazard out of the market.
The rest of the Gang of Four and their allies remained focused like a laser on inflation.
Even though commodity prices and inflation expectations were both falling fast, Hoenig wanted the Fed to “look beyond the immediate crisis,” and recognize that “we also have an inflation issue.” Bullard thought that “an inflation problem is brewing.” Plosser was heartened by falling commodity prices, but said, “I remain concerned about the inflation outlook going forward,” because “I do not see the ongoing slowdown in economic activity is entirely demand driven.” And Fisher half-jokingly complained that the bakery he’d been going to for 30 years—”the best maker of not only bagels, but anything with Crisco in it”—had just increased prices. All of them wanted to leave rates unchanged at 2 percent.
Again, only Eric Rosengren seemed to be in touch with reality, but no was listening:
[Rosengren] was afraid that exactly what did end up happening would happen. That all the financial chaos “would have a significant impact on the real economy,” that “individuals and firms will be become risk averse, with reluctance to consume or invest,” that “credit spreads are rising, and the cost and availability of financing is becoming more difficult,” and that “deleveraging is likely to occur with a vengeance.” More than that, he thought that the “calculated bet” they took in letting Lehman fail would look particularly bad “if we have a run on the money market funds or if the nongovernment tri-party repo market shuts down.” He wanted to cut rates immediately to do what they could to offset the worsening credit crunch. Nobody else did.
Like Bernanke for instance. Here is his take on the situation:
Overall I believe that our current funds rate setting is appropriate, and I don’t really see any reason to change…. Cutting rates would be a very big step that would send a very strong signal about our views on the economy and about our intentions going forward, and I think we should view that step as a very discrete thing rather than as a 25 basis point kind of thing. We should be very certain about that change before we undertake it because I would be concerned, for example, about the implications for the dollar, commodity prices, and the like.
O’Brien uses one of my favorite Hawtrey quotes to describe the insanity of the FOMC deliberations:
In other words, the Fed was just as worried about an inflation scare that was already passing as it was about a once-in-three-generations crisis.
It brought to mind what economist R. G. Hawtrey had said about the Great Depression. Back then, central bankers had worried more about the possibility of inflation than the grim reality of deflation. It was, Hawtrey said, like “crying Fire! Fire! in Noah’s flood.”
In any non-dysfunctional institution, the perpetrators of this outrage would have been sacked. But three of Gang of Four (Hoenig having become a director of the FDIC in 2012) remain safely ensconced in their exalted positions, blithely continuing, without the slightest acknowledgment of their catastrophic past misjudgments, to exert a malign influence on monetary policy. For shame!