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Ear to the Ground

Records Show Federal Reserve Wildly Misunderstood Crisis

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Posted on Feb 23, 2014

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Ondrej Kloucek (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“Hundreds of pages of transcripts, based on recordings made at the time, reveal the ignorance of Fed officials about economic conditions during the climactic months of the financial crisis,” The New York Times reports. “Officials repeatedly fretted about overstimulating the economy, only to realize time and again that they needed to redouble efforts to contain the crisis.”

The paper continues:

The Fed’s chairman at the time, Ben S. Bernanke, was unusually clearsighted in warning of the risk of a severe recession as the nation entered into a presidential election year. But he struggled to persuade his colleagues, and at crucial junctures he did not push forcefully for stronger action.

The Fed’s current chairwoman, Janet L. Yellen, then the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, was even more alarmed by the deterioration of economic conditions. She and Eric Rosengren, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, are the most forceful and persistent advocates for stronger action in the transcripts. But they, too, underestimated the downturn until the final months of 2008.

The Fed’s understanding of the crisis, however, was clouded by its reliance on indicators that tend to miss sharp changes in conditions. The government initially estimated, for example, that the economy expanded in the first half of 2008 because it basically assumed that some economic trends, like the pace of business creation, had continued apace. The Fed also relied on economic models that assumed the existence of smoothly functioning financial markets, limiting its ability to project the consequences of a breakdown. And the outlook of Fed officials also reflected a deeply ingrained bias to worry more about the risk of inflation than the reality of rising unemployment.

Read more here.

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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