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Randall S Kroszner served as a governor of the Federal Reserve System from March 2006 until January 2009. During his time as a member of the Federal Reserve Board, he chaired the committee on Supervision and Regulation of Banking Institutions and the committee on Consumer and Community Affairs. Kroszner was a member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) from 2001 to 2003. Currently, he is the Norman R Bobins Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He is an expert on international financial crises and the Great Depression. He was recently in India for the opening of The University of Chicago Center in Delhi. In this interview Kroszner tells Forbes India how the Federal Reserve managed to avoid another Great Depression in 2008 and why it had to let the investment bank Lehman Brothers go bankrupt.
Q. You were a governor at the Federal Reserve between 2006 and early 2009. That must have been a very tough and an exciting time…
Three easy years…(laughs). I am joking.
Q. Can you give us some flavour of how those years were?
It was an incredibly challenging time because the markets were moving so rapidly. The economy was also moving rapidly downward. So we had to take important decisions in real time. We would often get into situations where we would try to survive until Friday and then try to do the resolution by Sunday, before the Asian markets opened. So we had a lot of board meetings late on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. And it was a time where having an economic framework was very useful because when you have to make decisions in real time, you need to have a framework to understand what the priorities are.
Q. You and Ben Bernanke are scholars of the Great Depression. How did that help?
A number of us was quite familiar with the economic history. Three out of the five of us on the board had written papers on the Great Depression. And we were all pretty much influenced by Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz’s magisterial A Monetary History of the United States. Their study squarely put the blame on the inaction of the Federal Reserve, turning a depression into the Great Depression. Those were very important lessons for us and gave us both an economic and historical framework for looking into the kind of price distress we were having at that point of time, so that we could act quickly and boldly to prevent a repeat of the Great Depression.
Q. Did you all really believe that if the fiscal side and the monetary hadn’t acted as they did in 2008, you were really seeing a repeat of the Great Depression?
There was certainly a risk of that because clearly there was a lot of turmoil in the financial markets. There was a potential for failure of many financial institutions, if the Fed did nothing and did not provide liquidity to the market and some institutions. It was by no means a certainty. Even if the probability was low, it’s a risk that I and other members of the Federal Reserve board were reluctant to take.
Q. In the meetings at the Fed before September 2008, what was the atmosphere like? Did Chairman Bernanke and other governors have a clue of what was to come?
If you see the verbatim transcripts of 2008, many of us, including myself, were very concerned about the fragility of the market and the economy. We undertook some very bold action in terms of a very rapid interest rate cut. This was at a time when the European central banks were raising interest rates because oil prices were rising throughout 2008. But our forecast was that demand was likely to go down significantly and that the rise in oil prices was just a temporary price shift not suggesting an underlying increase in inflation. And that is why we had interest rates very low during that time period while other Central banks were raising interest rates.
Q. Being the Chair of the committee on Supervision and Regulation of Banking Institutions, you must have been in the room when a decision to let Lehman Brothers go bust would have been made. What was the atmosphere like?
So, there was no meeting where a go/no-go was made. It was a series of processes. Remember we were dealing with independent investment banks having significant funding troubles and great concerns about their ability to survive. And so we were exploring whether there could be merger partners for organisations like Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers. Bank of America decided to buy Merrill Lynch. There were others who were looking at Lehman Brothers and we thought that we would be finding a merger partner. But it then emerged over that weekend [the weekend of September 13-14, 2008] that a merger partner was not available for Lehman Brothers. The market had known that they were in trouble for a while. And Lehman Brothers had not been willing to merge with a number of other institutions that had proposed merger over the summer. Hence, it was in an effectively weak capital position. Its business model was imploding and so, the Fed was not able to do a capital infusion.
Image: Keith Bedford
Q. Why was that the case?
The Fed can only lend against good collateral to a solvent organisation. It was very difficult to make an assessment at that time. There was a merger partner available for Merrill Lynch and Bank of America could provide capital infusion and support. Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs had sufficient capital and sufficiently functional business models, that we felt comfortable granting them bank charters on an emergency basis. But Lehman Brothers did not have that wherewithal.
Q. But two days later, Federal Reserve stepped in to rescue AIG. How do you explain that?
Well, remember that the Fed could lend against good collateral. The problematic part of AIG was the financial products subsidiary of the holding company. But AIG had other operations in many states and in many countries that were not associated with the challenges that were there in the financial products division. And also, AIG had sufficient collateral to be able to post against the loan. Q. You are also a scholar of the Great Depression. What were the mistakes made during the Great Depression that haven’t been made during the period of what is now called the Great Recession?
As you know, a number of us, including Bernanke, myself and one of the other governors, were students of the Great Depression and had done work on it. Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz in their book had said the depression of the late ’20s and early ’30s was turned into the Great Depression precisely because the Fed did not act. The Fed stood by as the money supply collapsed, as deflation came in. The prices fell by a third, GDP fell by 30 percent and unemployment went up to 20 percent, and there was no action.Q. And that was the lesson?
Yes. That was a very important lesson for those of us who had studied the Great Depression, to make sure that we did not make that mistake of inaction because the central bank can prevent deflation. Broadly, we learnt the lessons of the Great Depression at the Fed to make sure that we didn’t make the same mistakes. We didn’t just sit idly and allow the price level to fall significantly and allow the GDP to contract. Honestly, we were able to avoid a significant recession. It is really something very different from what happened in the 1930s.
‘The Federal Reserve learnt the lessons of the Great Depression’Q. You also managed to avoid a deflation...
Deflation can be very destructive as we saw in the ’30s. Even a mild deflation can be very problematic as we have seen over the last 15 years in Japan. It was the strong commitment on the part those of us who studied the 1930s as opposed to the others, to make sure to not allow a state of inaction, where a central bank did not act as the lender of the last resort, which is actually what it was created to do. Further, central banks around the world have to be vigilant against the threat of deflation. Certainly, the Fed statement explicitly mentions a concern about inflation undershooting its 2 percent goal rather than just overshooting that goal. It is aware of the challenges there.
Q. International financial crises is an area of your expertise. Why are economists unable to spot bubbles? Your colleague and Nobel laureate Eugene Fama has even gone to the extent of saying, “I don’t even know what a bubble means. These words have become popular. I don’t think they have any meaning.”
It is easy ex-post to say that “aha that price did not make any sense” or “it was clear that price would be coming down”. But when you are in real time it is very difficult to be able to tell whether there is some sort of dislocation of the market or a fundamental change. It is extremely difficult to do that. We had the same challenge after the Asian, Russian and the Latin American crisis in the 1990s. The World Bank, IMF and many economists looked for indicators, the so-called red flags, which you could look at and tell when the economy is getting overheated. They tried to figure out which are the indicators that can tell us that credit growth is too fast, or that there is a “bubble” in a particular sector. Despite a lot of work by a lot of very smart people on the policy side and the academic side, we really haven’t come up with a simple set of indicators or any indicator where you can have confidence and say just look at x, y and z, and you know that there is some sort of dislocation here, that is going to be reversed.
Q. In a recent interview, you said that the Fed’s approach to communication has changed through the years. Could you elaborate on that?
The communication has become more complete and more transparent and also the words have changed over time. They are sometimes called forward guidance. They are sometimes called open mouth operations because it’s talking about what kind of purchases and sales that the open market operations are going to do. In my last meeting at the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), we brought interest rates to approximately zero and said that we would keep them there for an extended period of time. That gradually changed into a particular date, and the Fed would describe dates like 2014/2015. That changed to a description of 6.5 percent unemployment threshold. And most recently the Fed has said that it would not be focusing on a particular unemployment threshold. Q. What is the aim here?
I think all of those are trying to get at the same thing. It’s different words in different circumstances, around the same idea about the desire of the Fed to provide liquidity support to monetary accommodation to make sure that the economy fully recovers before it decides to take the punchbowl away. In these uncharted waters, giving a little bit more guidance about what the Federal Reserve thinks about policy-making and how is it going to react to data is helpful because the past behaviour may not be that useful because we haven’t had these kinds of circumstances before. Q. In a recent interview when you were asked when do you think the time will come when the Federal Reserve will start to raise interest rates, you had replied, “I do think it will come sometime in my lifetime.” Does that mean the era of low interest rates in the US is here to stay?
That was a bit of flip comment. I hope you understand that it was not meant seriously. We have had low interest rates for five to six years now. There is a hope that the economy will be strong enough sometime in 2015, and rates will be able to go up. You can see from most recent FOMC documents that all of the FOMC members believe that the interest rates will be higher by the end of 2015 than they are now. And that sounds to me as reasonable. Q. A lot of gold bulls have been thinking that at some point gold should have some role in money making. Do you see gold ever having any kind of role in monetary policy in future?
It’s narrow to pull this in any particular commodity because then the value of the currency will rise and fall depending on the vagaries of the particular market. So, small shocks like a flood in a mine in South Africa will have a big impact. And that is like putting too many eggs into one basket. The least you would want is a broader commodity-based basket that would be well diversified and would be able to withstand these kinds of shocks. So certainly thinking about alternative benchmarks for units of account are worthwhile to do. But I wouldn’t want to put all my eggs in one particular commodity basket, particularly a market like gold, which is a very small one.
Q. The near zero interest rates and QEs have had a bigger impact on the assets markets than the credit markets and the real economy. Would you say it is building up some problem?
Certainly there is a debate about that. It is important that the Fed is aware about this and is looking into this. Jeremy Stein, one of the governors of the Fed, has been at the forefront trying to think about what indicators to look at, indicators that might raise red flags. Jeremy as well as his staff are thinking very carefully about that. Monitoring this very, very closely is very important and I know that the Fed is. To be able to predict which markets will have a dislocation, it is impossible to do that. No one has that kind of foresight. But I do think there is much more focus on that today than there was in the past. Q. In another five-six months it will be six years since the Lehman Brothers went bust. How long do you think the easy money policies will continue?
As chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke had said, whatever it takes—a corollary of that is as long as it takes. We have had a slow recovery than anyone had hoped for and that has been true not only in the US but many other countries as well. Some countries like India and some emerging markets that had done very well in the late 2000s have seen a significant fall in growth more recently. As the FOMC and Janet Yellen [the Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System] have said they are now on a path of tapering. It is very important to draw the distinction between tapering and tightening. The Federal had made a commitment to buy $85 billion worth of additional assets every month and that added nearly $1 trillion to the balance sheet every year. And with tapering now it is going to reduce the pace of that increase. So it is not a tightening, it is just reducing the pace of additional accommodation. The additional accommodation is likely to wind down by the fourth quarter of this year and then depending on economic conditions, around six to nine months after that, the Fed might actually begin the process of tightening. But this is sort of a very gentle lengthy process. This is not a sudden shift of policy.
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(This story appears in the 27 June, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)