The Federal Reserve yesterday released transcripts from 2006 (full official transcripts of Fed meetings are released five years after the meetings occur), which shed some light on how badly the Fed misinterpreted the housing bubble. “I really believe that the drop in housing is actually on net going to make liquidity available for other sectors rather than being a drain going forward, and that will also get the growth rate more positive,” said then Fed member Susan Bies. “Housing is a relatively small sector of the economy, and its decline should be self-correcting,” added Janet Yellen, now the Fed’s vice chairman.
Dallas Fed Chairman Richard Fisher said that, “as one CEO told me, the only subject that has been more analyzed than the housing situation is the birth of Brad Pitt’s baby.” Chairman Ben Bernanke, meanwhile, predicted “at worst, an orderly decline in the housing market,” while now Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner (then president of the New York Federal Reserve) said, “we think the fundamentals of the expansion going forward still look good.”
The Fed’s perspective is perhaps best summed up by Gary Stern, then president of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, in a March 2006 meeting:
I thought I would comment a bit more on two issues in particular—one is housing—where I wonder if the significance of potential developments might not be being exaggerated a bit. I certainly agree that changes in housing prices, up or down, feed into household wealth and through that into consumer spending. I think that’s a perfectly acceptable story. So if housing prices go down or level off, they will have that effect on wealth and potentially on spending.
But there seems to be a view that, in some sense, an exogenous pronounced decline in housing prices is possible, maybe even likely, and that this could be more devastating for the economy. It’s not that I would quibble with that story, but I would wonder about its likelihood because it seems to me more likely that housing is the tail rather than the dog in this. That is, as long as employment continues to go up, incomes continue to go up, and mortgage rates remain relatively moderate, then I would expect that we would avoid severe difficulties in housing except for a few markets that are particularly inflated at this point.
From the transcripts, it becomes clear that Fed officials thought the economy supported the housing market. But it was actually the other way around: the housing sector was supporting the economy. Meanwhile, the nation’s biggest banks had entwined themselves (via the housing market, which they were helping prop up with predatory subprime loans) to such an extent that when housing finally declined, the whole system fell apart.