Federal Reserve staff and policy makers identified a housing bubble in 2005, and failed to alter a predictable path of interest-rate increases to slow down the expansion of mortgage credit, transcripts from Open Market Committee meetings that year show.
Led by then-Chairman Alan Greenspan, the FOMC raised the benchmark lending rate in quarter-point increments to 4.25 percent from 2.25 percent at the end of December 2004. The committee also removed uncertainty about the pace of rate increases by telegraphing that future moves would be “measured” in every statement.
The “measured” pace language helped fuel the housing boom by keeping longer-term interest rates low and was inappropriate at the time given the uncertainties about both inflation and asset prices, said Marvin Goodfriend, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
“It was a major mistake of the Fed,” said Goodfriend, who attended some of the 2005 meetings as a policy adviser to the Richmond Fed. “It gave markets a sense that the Fed was on top of everything to a degree that wasn’t the case. It gave the impression that this was a mechanical adjustment to normality. The market was overconfident.”
Transcripts from February show then-New York Fed President Timothy F. Geithner raising alarms about the low expectations of risk and volatility in financial markets. Geithner called the economic outlook at the time “implausibly benign.”
“The confidence around this view, which is evident in low credit spreads — low risk premia generally — and low expected volatility, leaves one, I think, somewhat uneasy,” said Geithner, who is now U.S. Treasury Secretary.
The FOMC in June heard presentations from staff economists, with some raising alarms about housing markets, the transcript shows. Those warnings didn’t translate into a more aggressive policy. The committee raised the benchmark lending rate a quarter-point at that meeting and said “policy accommodation can be removed at a pace that is likely to be measured.”
“An estimated 4 percent of borrowers are highly leveraged and could lose all of their home equity if house prices were to fall 10 percent,” Andreas Lehnert, now the deputy director of the Office of Financial Stability Policy and Research at the Board, told the committee. “One might wonder if financial institutions and investors have, in the face of the continuing housing boom, dropped their defenses against the mortgage losses that would accompany a house-price bust.”
New York Fed researcher Richard Peach dismissed press reports describing a bubble in housing markets.
“Hardly a day goes by without another anecdote-laden article in the press claiming that the U.S. is experiencing a housing bubble that will soon burst, with disastrous consequences for the economy,” Peach told the committee.
“Housing-market activity has been quite robust for some time now, with starts and sales of single-family homes reaching all-time highs in recent months and home prices rising rapidly, particularly along the East and West coasts of the country,” he said. “But such activity could be the result of solid fundamentals.”
Greenspan followed the presentation with questions about the effect of underlying land prices in housing indexes, and the quality of data on whether home purchases were for investment or residences.
“There was a fundamental failure of economic analysis to understand what was going on in the potential for house prices to stop rising,” said William Poole, the former St. Louis Fed president who attended the meetings in 2005. “The high degree of assurance that we all felt that house prices could not decline on a national average basis in a fundamental way — that was a significant mistake.”
House prices in the last decade peaked at a 15.7 percent year-over-year gain in the first quarter of 2005. By the first quarter of 2009, prices were falling at a 19 percent year-over- year rate, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. Home Price Index.
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