Publication of the transcripts of the FOMC meetings in 2008 has triggered a wave of criticism of the FOMC for the decisions it took in 2008. Since the transcripts were released I have written two posts (here and here) charging that the inflation-phobia of the FOMC was a key (though not the sole) cause of the financial crisis in September 2008. Many other bloggers, Matt Yglesias, Scott Sumner, Brad Delong and Paul Krugman, just to name a few, were also sharply critical of the FOMC, though Paul Krugman at any rate seemed to think that the Fed’s inflation obsession was merely weird rather than catastrophic.
Stephen Williamson, however, has a different take on all this. In a post last week, just after the release of the transcripts, Williamson chastised Matt Yglesias for chastising Ben Bernanke and the FOMC for not reducing the Federal Funds target at the September 16 FOMC meeting, the day after Lehman went into bankruptcy. Williamson quotes this passage from Yglesias’s post.
New documents released last week by the Federal Reserve shed important new light on one of the most consequential and underdiscussed moments of recent American history: the decision to hold interest rates flat on Sept. 16, 2008. At the time, the meeting at which the decision was made was overshadowed by the ongoing presidential campaign and Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy filing the previous day. Political reporters were focused on the campaign, economic reporters on Lehman, and since the news from the Fed was that nothing was changing, it didn’t make for much of a story. But in retrospect, it looks to have been a major policy blunder—one that was harmful on its own terms and that set a precedent for a series of later disasters.
To which Williamson responds acidly:
So, it’s like there was a fire at City Hall, and five years later a reporter for the local rag is complaining that the floor wasn’t swept while the fire was in progress.
Now, in a way, I agree with Williamson’s point here; I think it’s a mistake to overemphasize the September 16 meeting. By September 16, the damage had been done. The significance of the decision not to cut the Fed Funds target is not that the Fed might have prevented a panic that was already developing (though I don’t rule out the possibility that a strong enough statement by the FOMC might have provided enough reassurance to the markets to keep the crisis from spiraling out of control), but what the decision tells us about the mindset of the FOMC. Just read the statement that the Fed issued after its meeting.
The Federal Open Market Committee decided today to keep its target for the federal funds rate at 2 percent.
Strains in financial markets have increased significantly and labor markets have weakened further. Economic growth appears to have slowed recently, partly reflecting a softening of household spending. Tight credit conditions, the ongoing housing contraction, and some slowing in export growth are likely to weigh on economic growth over the next few quarters. Over time, the substantial easing of monetary policy, combined with ongoing measures to foster market liquidity, should help to promote moderate economic growth.
Inflation has been high, spurred by the earlier increases in the prices of energy and some other commodities. The Committee expects inflation to moderate later this year and next year, but the inflation outlook remains highly uncertain.
The downside risks to growth and the upside risks to inflation are both of significant concern to the Committee. The Committee will monitor economic and financial developments carefully and will act as needed to promote sustainable economic growth and price stability.
What planet were they living on? “The downside risks to growth and the upside risks to inflation are both of significant concern to the Committee.” OMG!
Williamson, however, sees it differently.
[T]he FOMC agreed to keep the fed funds rate target constant at 2%. Seems like this was pretty dim-witted of the committee, given what was going on in financial markets that very day, right? Wrong. At that point, the fed funds market target rate had become completely irrelevant.
Williamson goes on to point out that although the FOMC did not change the Fed Funds target, borrowings from the Fed increased sharply in September, so that the Fed was effectively easing its policy even though the target – a meaningless target in Williamson’s view – had not changed.
Thus, by September 16, 2008, it seems the Fed was effectively already at the zero lower bound. At that time the fed funds target was irrelevant, as there were excess reserves in the system, and the effective fed funds rate was irrelevant, as it reflected risk.
I want to make two comments on Williamson’s argument. First, the argument is certainly at odds with Bernanke’s own statement in the transcript, towards the end of the September 16 meeting, giving his own recommendation about what policy action the FOMC should take:
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.
So Bernanke clearly states that his view is that the current fed funds target was “appropriate.” He did not say that the fed funds rate is at the lower bound. Instead, he explains why he does not want to cut the fed funds rate, implying that he believed that cutting the rate was an option. He didn’t want to exercise that option, because he did not like the “very strong signal about our views on the economy and about our intentions going forward” that a rate cut would send. Indeed, he intimates that a rate cut of 25 basis points would be meaningless under the circumstances, suggesting an awareness, however vague, that a crisis was brewing, so that a cut in the target rate would have to be substantial to calm, rather than scare, the markets. (The next cut, three weeks later, was 50 basis points, and things only got worse.)
Second, suppose for argument’s sake, that Williamson is right and Bernanke (and almost everyone else) was wrong, that the fed funds target was meaningless. Does that mean that the Fed’s inflation obsession in 2008 is just an optical illusion with no significance — that the Fed was powerless to have done anything that would have increased expenditure and income, thereby avoiding or alleviating the crisis?
I don’t think so, and the reason is that, as I pointed out in my previous post, the dollar began appreciating rapidly in forex markets in mid-July 2009, the dollar euro exchange rate appreciating by about 12% and the trade-weighted value of the dollar appreciating by about 10% between mid-July and the week before the Lehman collapse. An appreciating that rapid was a clear sign that there was a shortage of dollar liquidity which was causing spending to drop all through the economy, as later confirmed by the sharp drop in third-quarter GDP. The dollar fell briefly in the days just before and after the Lehman collapse, then resuming its sharp ascent as the financial crisis worsened in September and October, appreciating by another 10-15%.
So even if the fed funds target was ineffectual, the Fed, along with the Treasury, still had it within their power to intervene in forex markets, selling dollars for euros and other currencies, thereby preventing the dollar from rising further in value. Unfortunately, as is clear from the transcripts, the FOMC thought that the rising dollar was a favorable development that would reduce the inflation about which it was so obsessively concerned. So the FOMC happily watched the dollar rise by 25% against other currencies between July and November as the economy tanked, because, as the September 16 statement of the FOMC so eloquently put it, “upside risks to inflation are . . . of significant concern to the Committee.” The FOMC gave us the monetary policy it wanted us to have.