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2009 transcripts reveal Fed confronting a chaotic banking system

Associated Press
Fed officials worried about setting precedents of giving billions in government support to banks

Transcripts of Federal Reserve meetings in 2009 showed central bank officials struggling to contain the worst financial crisis in seven decades and searching for the right policies to halt a deepening economic downturn.

The transcripts released Wednesday revealed that officials were worried about the precedents being set by providing billions of dollars of government support to the nation's largest banks. They also searched for ways to provide more support to an economy that seemed to be in free fall at the beginning of the year.

During an emergency call on the morning of Jan. 16, 2009, after the government had announced a $20-billion bailout for Bank of America, then-Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke declared that he was unwilling to allow "the failure of a firm the size of Bank of America."

The call underscored the chaotic situation facing the Fed and other government agencies as they confronted a financial crisis that had begun in September with the takeover of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the collapse of Lehman Bros. in the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history. The Bush administration scrambled to assemble a $700-billion bailout fund that Congress approved to try to stabilize the financial system.

Bernanke apologized to the group for not informing them about the details of the Bank of America rescue before it was publicly announced. He said officials had moved up the announcement at the request of the bank, which was worried about deteriorating market conditions.

The country's economic downturn was hitting with full force in early 2009. The economy contracted sharply, with job losses averaging 774,000 in the first three months of the year and the Dow Jones industrial average plunging to a low of 6,440 on March 9.

Faced with the turmoil in financial markets and rapidly rising unemployment, Fed policymakers at their March 17-18 meeting decided to expand by $1.2 trillion a bond purchase program it had begun in November. The goal of the unprecedented effort was to push long-term interest rates lower to give the economy a boost at a time when the Fed's main policy lever, short-term interest rates, had already been pushed as low as they could go near zero.

Over the next five years, the Fed's purchases of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities would expand its balance sheet to $4.5 trillion, a nearly five-fold increase from where the balance sheet stood before the recession hit in the fall of 2008. The Fed did not end the bond purchases until October.

At the March 2009 meeting, the transcripts showed policymakers were worried that the bond buying program would not be big or bold enough to restore confidence.

"The only thing worse than buying Treasuries is to buy them in such a tepid way that we don't have any effect," said Fed Governor Kevin Warsh. "I think if we're in, we're in. We're crossing the Rubicon."

By the April 28-29 meeting, the transcripts show Fed officials took note of signs that the economy had stabilized somewhat.

"There have been some initial signs that the recession may be approaching a trough," said Eric Rosengren, president of the Fed's Boston regional bank.

Janet L. Yellen, now Fed chairwoman but then president of the Fed's San Francisco bank, called it a "welcome relief" that the economic data since the previous meeting weren't uniformly disappointing. But she cautioned against overreacting to the slightly better news, particularly since data about the job market were "appalling."

"I am particularly concerned that another shoe may drop," she said. "Confidence in global financial markets is extremely fragile, and more bad news could trigger another panic and run on the financial system."

In comments that proved particularly prescient, given the struggles the global economy has faced in emerging from the Great Recession, Yellen added, "Unfortunately, the road ahead is littered with headlines of defaults, bankruptcies and rising unemployment."

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