This is a story of pride, prescience, and mild panic among the economy's keepers at the eve of this generation's worst recession
It was the end of the world as we knew it, and the Fed was feeling fine.
Okay, that's not really fair. The transcript of the Federal Reserve's 2007 meetings, months before the economy entered its worst recession since the Great Depression, reveal an institution far from oblivious, with a few notable exceptions. They just didn't quite understand the labyrinthine web of financial interconnections until it was too late.
Back in 2007, the credit crunch that became the Great Recession started when financial institutions realized it might not have been a good idea to loan money to people who couldn't pay you back. But with the economy roaring to new heights, the Fed wasn't in crisis mode -- yet. Panic in the financial markets certainly wasn't good news, but the Fed had managed to make it through similar panics in 1987, when the stock market fell almost a quarter in one day, and in 1998, when hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management nearly brought down the financial system, without the real economy suffering any harm. This time didn't need to be different. And, to be fair, the Fed was well aware of the risks piling up in the financial system as the clock ticked down to Lehman. It didn't even really make any big mistakes in 2007; those came later. So while it's easy to mock the Fed for saying Bear Stearns and Countrywide didn't have too much trouble getting liquidity in August 2007 ... but it was true at the time! They only ran into problems, the kind that drove them into bankruptcy and/or mergers, later.
Below are the six most revealing passages from the Fed's pre-crisis meetings, with a key sentence of each quote underlined. Beyond the inflation hawks who managed to see price increases under every rock, they were mostly right in their analyses. They just weren't right enough. Or quickly enough.
Ben Bernanke, August 10, 2007:
Our goal is to provide liquidity not to support asset prices per se in any way. My understanding of the market's problem is that price discovery has been inhibited by the illiquidity of the subprime-related assets that are not trading, and nobody knows what they're worth, and so there's a general freeze-up. The market is not operating in a normal way. The idea of providing liquidity is essentially to give the market some ability to do the appropriate repricing it needs to do and to begin to operate more normally. So it's a question of market functioning, not a question of bailing anybody out.
This is what a central banker says when things start to hit the fan. The day prior, French bank BNP Paribas had sent the financial world into a frenzy when it announced it wouldn't let investors cash out of two of its subprime funds, because the bank had no idea what they were worth. Nobody would buy, and when that happens, the "price" is pretty much zero. But as Bob Peston of the BBC pointed out at the time, the scariest bit was that BNP Paribas itself didn't want to buy these bonds on the cheap. The bank wasn't sure they weren't totally worthless, too. And if banks (and shadow banks like hedge funds or special investment vehicles) were sitting on top of piles of genuinely worthless bonds, who would want to lend them? Answer: nobody, at least not without top-notch collateral. Hello, credit crunch.
Ben Bernanke, August 16, 2007:
So I wouldn't say that a rate cut is completely off the table, but my own feeling is that we should try to resist a rate cut until it is really very clear from economic data and other information that it is needed. I'd really prefer to avoid giving any impression of a bailout or a put, if we can. Therefore, what I'm going to suggest today is to offer a statement updating our views of the economy that will give some signal about where we think things are going but to stop short today of changing rates.
A week later, things weren't any better. Financial institutions still didn't want to lend to each other except against the best collateral, and markets still didn't exist for subprime securities. Bernanke's dilemma was whether to 1) just expand emergency lending to the banks, or 2) cut interest rates too. But with the real economy humming despite the financial turmoil, Bernanke worried the latter would look too much like a bailout (or a "put" option) for Wall Street.
Bill Dudley, September 18, 2007:
At the same time, this balance sheet pressure and worries about counterparty risk have led to a significant rise in term borrowing rates. Banks that are sellers of funds have shifted to the overnight market to preserve their liquidity, and this shift has starved the term market of funds, pushing those rates higher .... Moreover, the increased reliance by banks on overnight funding increases rollover risk and may limit the willingness of banks to expand their balance sheets to accommodate the deleveraging of the nonbank financial sector.
This is one of the driest descriptions of financial armageddon you'll ever read. Let's translate it into English. Banks knew they were all sitting on top of toxic waste, but nobody knew who was sitting on the most of it -- so they wouldn't lend to each other, except at punitively high rates, for anything longer than a day. But relying on such overnight funding made the banks vulnerable to de facto bank runs, and that made vulnerability made them less likely to keep lending even as shadow banks cut back on lending. In other words, a credit crunch. And less credit just when borrowers most needed it meant more people would eventually go bust ... hurting mortgage bonds even more, and making banks pull back further. Loops don't get much more vicious.
Janet Yellen, December 11, 2007:
The possibilities of a credit crunch developing and of the economy slipping into a recession seem all too real .... I am particularly concerned that we may now be seeing the first signs of spillovers from the housing and financial sectors to the broader economy .... Although I don't foresee conditions in the banking sector getting as bleak as during the credit crunch of the early 1990s, the parallels to those events are striking. Back then, we saw a large number of bank failures in the contraction of the savings and loan sector. In the current situation, most banks are still in pretty good shape. Instead, it is the shadow banking sector-- that is, the set of markets in which a variety of securitized assets are financed by the issuance of commercial paper--that is where the failures have occurred. This sector is all but shut for new business. But bank capital is also an issue. Until the securitization of nonconforming mortgage lending reemerges, financing will depend on the willingness and ability of banks, thrifts, and the GSEs to step in to fill the breach.
The Great Recession was just about to officially begin (although NBER wouldn't announce that until much later), and more members of the Fed were contemplating the Rube Goldberg machine of doom subprime had set off. As Yellen pointed out here, the shadow banking system was already in hibernation at this point, although it wasn't clear whether regular banks would be able to step in the breach and keep things moving. (Spoiler alert: They weren't).
Frederic Mishkin, December 11, 2007:
In particular, there are two scenarios that they go into separately--the housing correction scenario and the credit crunch scenario. I think that there's a very strong possibility those would come together because, if housing prices go down more, that creates a much more serious problem in terms of valuation risk, and a serious problem in valuation risk will mean a further credit market disruption, which then can lead to more macroeconomic risk because it leads to this downward spiral. The real economy gets worse.
These are about the three most prescient sentences you'll find in the Fed transcripts. Miskin was concerned that subprime wasn't, as Bernanke had previously put it, contained, and that a further fall in housing would mean further damage to bank and shadow bank balance sheets, which would make them even less likely to lend. The ultimate danger, as Mishkin pointed out, was that this credit crunch would migrate from the financial to the real economy; that not just banks, but households too, wouldn't be able to borrow. The pyramid of debt that existed in 2007 was like a shark -- it had to keep moving to live. If households spent less because they couldn't borrow more, the economy would slow down, and more people would default on their debts. In other words, exactly what did happen would happen. Of course, it still wasn't clear how precarious the financial sector was beyond the shadow banks. Again, from Mishkin.
You don't like to use the R word, but the probability of recession is, I think, nearing 50 percent, and that really worries me very much. I also think that there's even a possibility that a recession could be reasonably severe, though not a disaster. Luckily all of this has happened with an economy that was pretty strong and with banks having good balance sheets; otherwise it could really be a potential disaster.
Richard Fisher, December 11, 2007:
I'd like to address the inflation situation more thoroughly, Mr. Chairman. The CEO of Wal-Mart USA said that, for the first time in his career at that firm, they have approved a plan in which purchase costs will increase 3 percent in '08. He hadn't seen that before in his experience and said, "I'm totally used to deflation. Deflation is finished." In terms of the suppliers to Wal-Mart, this was verified. I think on food prices we have to be extremely careful. Frito-Lay is seeking a 51⁄2 percent price increase for next year. Wal-Mart has acquiesced.
No, I didn't make this one up. And yes, just as the biggest deflationary spiral in 80 years was about to hit the economy, Fisher was worried about inflation. And he was worried about inflation, because ... Frito-Lay was thinking about increasing prices 5.5 percent the following year. This is not a joke. Well, it is a joke, but, again, not one that I made up.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Places like St. Louis and New York City were once similarly prosperous. Then, 30 years ago, the United States turned its back on the policies that had been encouraging parity.
Despite all the attention focused these days on the fortunes of the “1 percent,” debates over inequality still tend to ignore one of its most politically destabilizing and economically destructive forms. This is the growing, and historically unprecedented, economic divide that has emerged in recent decades among the different regions of the United States.
Until the early 1980s, a long-running feature of American history was the gradual convergence of income across regions. The trend goes back to at least the 1840s, but grew particularly strong during the middle decades of the 20th century. This was, in part, a result of the South catching up with the North in its economic development. As late as 1940, per-capita income in Mississippi, for example, was still less than one-quarter that of Connecticut. Over the next 40 years, Mississippians saw their incomes rise much faster than did residents of Connecticut, until by 1980 the gap in income had shrunk to 58 percent.
As the public’s fear and loathing surge, the frontrunner’s durable candidacy has taken a dark turn.
MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina—All politicians, if they are any good at their craft, know the truth about human nature.
Donald Trump is very good, and he knows it better than most.
Trump stands alone on a long platform, surrounded by a rapturous throng. Below and behind him—sitting on bleachers and standing on the floor—they fill this city’s cavernous, yellow-beige convention center by the thousands. As Trump will shortly point out, there are a lot of other Republican presidential candidates, but none of them get crowds anything like this.
Trump raises an orange-pink hand like a waiter holding a tray. “They are not coming in from Syria,” he says. “We’re sending them back!” The crowd surges, whistles, cheers. “So many bad things are happening—they have sections of Paris where the police are afraid to go,” he continues. “Look at Belgium, the whole place is closed down! We can’t let it happen here, folks.”
Live in anticipation, gathering stories and memories. New research builds on the vogue mantra of behavioral economics.
Forty-seven percent of the time, the average mind is wandering. It wanders about a third of the time while a person is reading, talking with other people, or taking care of children. It wanders 10 percent of the time, even, during sex. And that wandering, according to psychologist Matthew Killingsworth, is not good for well-being. A mind belongs in one place. During his training at Harvard, Killingsworth compiled those numbers and built a scientific case for every cliché about living in the moment. In a 2010 Science paper co-authored with psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, the two wrote that "a wandering mind is an unhappy mind."
For Killingsworth, happiness is in the content of moment-to-moment experiences. Nothing material is intrinsically valuable, except in whatever promise of happiness it carries. Satisfaction in owning a thing does not have to come during the moment it's acquired, of course. It can come as anticipation or nostalgic longing. Overall, though, the achievement of the human brain to contemplate events past and future at great, tedious length has, these psychologists believe, come at the expense of happiness. Minds tend to wander to dark, not whimsical, places. Unless that mind has something exciting to anticipate or sweet to remember.
Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?
The air shrieks, and life stops. First, from far away, comes a high whine like angry insects swarming, and then a trampling, like a herd moving through. The kids on their bikes who pass by the Caltrain crossing are eager to get home from school, but they know the drill. Brake. Wait for the train to pass. Five cars, double-decker, tearing past at 50 miles an hour. Too fast to see the faces of the Silicon Valley commuters on board, only a long silver thing with black teeth. A Caltrain coming into a station slows, invites you in. But a Caltrain at a crossing registers more like an ambulance, warning you fiercely out of its way.
The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.
It was widely seen as a counter-argument to claims that poor people are "to blame" for bad decisions and a rebuke to policies that withhold money from the poorest families unless they behave in a certain way. After all, if being poor leads to bad decision-making (as opposed to the other way around), then giving cash should alleviate the cognitive burdens of poverty, all on its own.
Sometimes, science doesn't stick without a proper anecdote, and "Why I Make Terrible Decisions," a comment published on Gawker's Kinja platform by a person in poverty, is a devastating illustration of the Science study. I've bolded what I found the most moving, insightful portions, but it's a moving and insightful testimony all the way through.
Bill Gates has committed his fortune to moving the world beyond fossil fuels and mitigating climate change.
In his offices overlooking Lake Washington, just east of Seattle, Bill Gates grabbed a legal pad recently and began covering it in his left-handed scrawl. He scribbled arrows by each margin of the pad, both pointing inward. The arrow near the left margin, he said, represented how governments worldwide could stimulate ingenuity to combat climate change by dramatically increasing spending on research and development. “The push is the R&D,” he said, before indicating the arrow on the right. “The pull is the carbon tax.” Between the arrows he sketched boxes to represent areas, such as deployment of new technology, where, he argued, private investors should foot the bill. He has pledged to commit $2 billion himself.
Better-informed consumers are ditching the bowls of sugar that were once a triumph of 20th-century marketing.
Last year, General Mills launched a new product aimed at health-conscious customers: Cheerios Protein, a version of its popular cereal made with whole-grain oats and lentils. Early reviews were favorable. The cereal, Huffington Post reported, tasted mostly like regular Cheerios, although “it seemed like they were sweetened and flavored a little more aggressively.” Meanwhile, ads boasted that the cereal would offer “long-lasting energy” as opposed to a sugar crash.
But earlier this month, the Center for Science in the Public Interest sued General Mills, saying that there’s very little extra protein in Cheerios Protein compared to the original brand and an awful lot more sugar—17 times as much, in fact. So why would General Mills try to market a product as containing protein when it’s really a box fill of carbs and refined sugar?
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
American education is largely limited to lessons about the West.
When I turned 15, my parents sent me alone on a one-month trip to Ecuador, the country where my father was born. This was tradition in our family—for my parents to send their first-generation American kids to the country of their heritage, where we would meet our extended family, immerse ourselves in a different culture, and learn some lessons on gratefulness.
My family’s plan worked. That month in Ecuador did more for my character, education, and sense of identity than any other experience in my early life. And five years later, my experience in Ecuador inspired me to spend more time abroad, studying in South Africa at the University of Cape Town. These two trips not only made me a lifelong traveler, but also a person who believes traveling to developing countries should be a necessary rite of passage for every young American who has the means.