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How the Fed Contributes to Crises

The government's actions before the crisis and after it began are troubling, our distinguished panel says.

Bill Bergman, 06/03/2009

If your clients had a bad year last year, it might seem easy to conclude that you shouldn't take it personally, because your clients were far from alone. After all, market prices for individual investments are driven by macro-economic factors as well as factors specific to the investments at hand. And the financial crisis significantly undermined economic and investment confidence in many corners of the markets.

On the other hand, there could be a good reason to take the meltdown personally. Our crisis has had important regulatory underpinnings. Those institutions we've created to help "stabilize" banking markets and to "protect investors" may not have done what they advertise heading into the crisis, as well as when dealing with it.

On April 27, we held a conversation with Ed Kane, Martin Mayer, and Walker Todd--three people who have great depth and experience in understanding the plumbing, history, and effects of the regulatory infrastructure of our financial markets. Kane is professor of finance at Boston College, past president of the American Finance Association, and co-founder of the Shadow Financial Regulatory Committee. Martin Mayer is a prolific financial journalist, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, and the author of more than 30 books on financial market issues. Todd worked in the Federal Reserve System as an attorney and economist and is now affiliated with the American Institute for Economic Research. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Bill Bergman: Where does this financial crisis rank historically?

Ed Kane: I call it the Great Recession. It hasn't become a depression by any means, but it is the worst recession we've had since Keynesian economics led to a more active government acceptance of the responsibility to ameliorate business cycles.

Martin Mayer: We were always going to have a bad patch. A lot of very dumb things had been done, particularly at the federal banks, but also, a lot of people's worst instincts were pandered to, and they were inviting what is now fashionable to call the Minsky moment, when actually it looks as though it's a Goldilocks moment--the economy was suddenly eaten by bears.

Walker Todd: I would note that Martin's book, The Fed (Plume, 2002), should be required reading for everybody to gain a view of the run-up to this crisis. You can easily see how we got here. This financial situation is the worst since the end of World War II. We looked at the charts at AIER last Friday, and virtually all the economic-performance charts were at unheard-of or post-war lows. This really is the big one.

Kane: Officials panicked in September 2008, and the public lost confidence in their ability to manage. It is striking how in these different agencies, a small inner circle of people have closed themselves off to ideas from even the rest of their staff. I understand that in a lot of agencies everybody goes home on time, but this inner circle has been working itself to death. Along with panic, I think there is exhaustion and some loss of judgment, because they've been under pressure for so long.

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