Or should I say the nominal problem . . .
There’s been a lot of discussion of the release of the 2007 Fed minutes. I tend to agree with Matt Yglesias—the real problem was the following year. Stocks did pretty well in 2007, until very late in the year. It would be nice if we had an NGDP futures market and didn’t have to make inferences from equity markets, but that’s not the world we live in. Ross Brown send me a WaPo article by Neil Irwin that’s a bit tougher on the Fed than I would be. Still, he makes a number of good points:
One lesson here is that our public officials, even the hard-working, highly intelligent ones, are far from demi-gods. They have the same blind spots and tendency toward analytical failures of anyone else. Secrecy allows public officials, whether in the world of monetary policy or others like national security, to create a Wizard of Oz like illusion of holding great power, of maneuvering levers with information in hand that mere mortals can only dream of. When reporters interview a high official, there is often a subtext the high official aims to convey: If you knew what I know, you would understand the supreme wisdom of my actions.
Seeing what the Fed officials were saying privately, to each other, in 2007 is a reminder that this isn’t always so, and just because a person has more information, it doesn’t mean he or she has the right answer.
This is why I don’t believe our medical experts when they assure us that there is no danger from scientists experimenting with deadly viruses in the laboratory.
Irwin also made this observation:
It should also be added that there’s not much reason to think the crisis could have been prevented if the Fed had been quicker on the draw. If you honestly believe that we would have skirted recession if the Fed had cut rates by 0.5 percentage points at the December 2007 meeting, not 0.25 percentage points, you have a distorted sense of the power of a central bank to shape the course of the economy.
When put that way, it’s hard to disagree. But FWIW, on December 11, 2007, the Fed cut rates by 0.25% and Dow finished between 600 and 800 points lower than it would have had the Fed cut rates by 0.5%. That’s not the difference between recession and no recession, but it’s still HUGE. And monetary policy most certainly could have prevented a severe slump. It could have prevented me from becoming a blogger.
Still, until the December 2007 fumble I thought the Fed was doing a reasonably good job. On the other hand in late 2008 it was patently obvious that the Fed was way off course, that NGDP was falling sharply. This is where people ought to get outraged. But not just outraged at the Fed, it was the entire macro establishment that screwed up in late 2008. I was watching things pretty closely by that time, and I honestly recall only one cri de coeur that was appropriately intense—by Jim Cramer of all people. I’ve pretty much given up on ever finding it, so if you’ll allow me a bit (actually a lot) of poetic license, I’ll try to reconstruct what I recall. It probably occurred on November 6th, 2008, and was something like this:
For a moment this morning I thought there was some hope. The BOE cut rates by 150 basis points and the stock futures rallied. It looked like things might finally be stabilizing in the equity markets. Then the morons at the ECB came in with a measly 50 basis point cut and the markets tanked. They’re killing us! They just don’t get it! The whole economy is collapsing and the policymakers are just twiddling their thumbs!
These are my words not Cramer’s. If you want to see what the real Cramer sounds like, take a look at the following August 2007 video. As I said, I think Cramer was a bit early here. But given how things panned out he looked pretty prescient. But by 2008 all the elite macroeconomists should have been screaming at the top of their lungs that money was way too tight. That massive monetary stimulus was needed. And I heard almost nothing—except Cramer’s rant. He was in the trenches watching how the markets were reacting to the massive policy failure, so he saw what was happening much more clearly that academic macroeconomists in their ivory towers. This rant was probably one of the things that pushed me into blogging. It gave me hope to know that I wasn’t alone.
Thanks to Evan Soltas for sending me the 2007 video:
PS. A few technical details. On December 11, 2007 I recall that the Dow fell about 350 points after the 2:15 Fed announcement (the market was actually up 50 at 2:14pm.) Fed funds futures priced in only about a 42% chance of a 0.5% cut, and a 58% chance of a 0.25% cut. You do the math.
The S&P closed at 1005.75 on November 4, at 952.77 on November 5, and at 904.88 on November 6, 2008.