Lest We Forget

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, then staggering under huge losses from bad loans, were put into government conservatorship on September 6, 2008—eleven years ago today. Once considered financially golden and politically invulnerable, they were the lynchpins of the giant American housing finance market. But in 2008, instead of inspiring the fear and admiration to which they were previously accustomed, they were humiliated. “O what a fall was there, my countrymen!” This was an essential moment in the intensification of the 2007-2009 financial crisis. Naturally, Fannie and Freddie were bailed out by the U.S. Treasury. All the creditors got paid every penny on time, although the common stockholders from peak to trough lost 99%.

On the anniversary of Fannie and Freddie’s arrival in conservatorship, we consider Firefighting, the instructive and often quite personal memoir of the crisis and their own roles in it by three principal government actors—Hank Paulson, then Secretary of the Treasury; Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve; and Tim Geithner, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (and later, Paulson’s successor as Treasury Secretary).

To paraphrase the opening lines of the famous History of Herodotus from ancient Greece, using first names as they do in the book, “These are the memories of Hank and Ben of Washington and Tim of New York, which they publish in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what they have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were the grounds of their actions.” This memoir will be able to be read usefully by future generations, if they are smart enough to study financial history.

The personal dimension of this account impresses us with the unavoidable uncertainty and the fog obscuring understanding, not to mention the emotions and then the exhaustion, which surround those who must act in a crisis. As they struggle to update their expectations and make decisions adequate to the threatened collapse, surprising disasters keep emerging in spite of their efforts.

As the authors reflect: “None of us was ever sure what would work, what would backfire, or how much stress the system would be able to handle.” So “We had to feel our way through the fog, sometimes changing our tactics, sometimes changing our minds, with enormous uncertainty.”

The pervasive uncertainty in part reflects the fact that crises “are products of human emotions and perceptions, as well as the inevitable lapses of human regulators and policymakers.” And “regulators and policymakers aren’t immune to those manias. Human beings are inherently susceptible to irrational exuberance as well as irrational fears.” This is not a new thought, to be sure, but certainly an accurate one.

In a crisis, all are faced with “the infinite expandability and total collapsibility of credit.” This wonderful phrase is from Charles Kindleberger, in his classic Manias, Panics, and Crashes. But how can those in responsible positions know when the collapsibility is going to be upon us? It may not be so easy to figure that out in advance.

“In the early phase of any crisis, policymakers have to calibrate how forcefully to respond to a situation they don’t yet entirely understand,” says the book. This seems right, but pretty delicately stated. A more honest wording would have been “have to guess how to respond to a situation they don’t understand.” While guessing, they are faced with this problem: “Governments that routinely ride to the rescue at the first hint of trouble can create. . . reckless speculation. . . . But underreacting can be even costlier and more damaging than overreacting.” Which is it to be? “Unfortunately, crises don’t announce themselves as either idiosyncratic brush fires. . . or systemic nightmares.” So, as the book describes, “Policymakers have to figure it out as they go along.”

As they strove to do so, “The three of us would work together as a team throughout the crisis, talking to one another every day, usually multiple times.” And talking to many financial executives, too: “Sometimes we just needed to hear how much fear was in their voices. Sometimes they professed confidence, sometimes they pleaded for assistance. Often they didn’t know that much about the risks ahead. We had to sort through all the confusion and self-interest.” In general, “Policymakers can’t trust everything they hear from market participants.” Of course.

Indeed, whose word can be trusted? Government officials worry that speaking truly about their fears may set off the very panic they are trying to avoid. “When it becomes serious, you have to lie,” said Jean-Claude Juncker about this aspect of the crisis in Europe. “The mere act of publicly advocating for [the] TARP [bailout] carried some risk,” write our authors. “Excessively alarmist rhetoric could end up inflaming the panic.” There seems to be no way to escape this dilemma.

Here is the authors’ confession: “Even in the months leading up to it, we didn’t foresee how the scenario would unfold”—how it would “unravel” would be a better term. This was not for lack of effort. “All three of us established new risk committees and task forces within our institutions before the crisis to try to focus attention on systemic threats. . . calling for more robust risk management and humility about tail risks.” But “none of us recognized how they were about to spiral out of control. For all our crisis experience, we failed to anticipate the worst crisis of our lifetimes.”

This experience leads the authors to a reasonable conclusion: such a lack of foresight is likely to repeat itself in the future. “For us,” they muse, “the crisis still feels like yesterday,” but “markets have short memories, and as history has demonstrated, long periods of confidence and stability can”—I would say almost certainly do—“produce overconfidence and instability.” So “we remain worried about the next fire.” This is perfectly sensible, although the book’s overuse of the “fire” metaphor becomes tiresome.

Failed foresight and future financial crises and panics are possible or probable. With that expectation and their searing experiences, the authors believe that it is essential to maintain the government’s crisis authorities and bailout powers. This includes the ability to invest equity into the financial system when it would otherwise go broke, and they deplore the Dodd-Frank Act’s having curtailed these powers.

To correct this, “Washington needs to muster the courage to restock the emergency arsenal with the tools which helped end the crisis of 2008—the authority for crisis managers to inject capital into banks, buy their assets, and especially to guarantee their liabilities.” This would hardly be politically popular with either party now, because it would be seen as favoring bailouts of big banks. It would increase moral hazard, but would also reflect the reality that government officials will intervene in future financial crises, just as in past ones. “The current mix of constraints on the emergency policy arsenal is dangerous for the United States,” conclude the most prominent practitioners of emergency financial actions of our time. Thus they end the book with their contribution to the perpetual debate of preparing for government intervention versus creating moral hazard.

In the meantime, they have related a history which, in the spirit of Herodotus, does deserve its due meed of remembrance.