Transcripts of 2010 Federal Reserve meeting show concerns about leaks

Washington, January 16

Transcripts released on Friday show that in the fall of 2010, officials of the Federal Reserve were worried not just about

a sluggish economy but also about in-fighting at the Fed and possible leaks of sensitive information.

Transcripts reveal then-Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke told members of Fed’s top policy group at a November 2 meeting he was concerned about reports of leaks to news media and to financial market players. He also expressed concerns about Fed officials taking ‘very inflexible positions’ in advance of Fed meetings.

Bernanke’s comments came at the start of a pivotal Fed meeting when central bank approved a second round of bond purchases in an effort to bolster a struggling economy.

The 2010 transcripts, released with the usual five-year delay, showed a central bank struggling to come to grips with the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. While the downturn officially ended in June 2009, economic growth remained too anaemic to generate solid job growth.

At the meeting on November 2 to 3, 2010, Bernanke stressed the ‘considerable risk’ the Fed faced if sensitive material was released. He also talked about the importance of not sending confusing signals to financial markets about internal Fed discussions. In an effort to address the problems, Bernanke said he was appointing a subcommittee headed

by then Fed vice chair Janet Yellen to explore ways to improve communications.

At November meeting, Fed approved the purchase of $600 billion of Treasury bonds at a rate of $75 billion per month in an effort to stimulate the economy by pushing long-term interest rates down further.

The measure was approved by a vote of 10-to-one. Thomas Hoenig, president of the Fed’s Kansas City regional bank at the time, opposed the move. However, the transcripts showed that other Fed officials questioned whether the new round of bond purchases would be effective.

Kevin Warsh, a Fed board member at the time, said he was worried about risks to the economy from further bond purchases but said he would not dissent because he did not want to undermine chances programme would succeed.

“My respect for you during this last four-and-a-half years is incredibly high,” he told Bernanke at the November meeting. “I am awed by the burdens you are confronting and I wouldn’t want to undermine at this important moment the chance that this programme could be successful.”

One of the strongest voices supporting Bernanke’s efforts to launch more bond purchases was Yellen, who became Fed vice chair in 2010 and succeeded Bernanke as head of central bank in February 2014.

“The long slog we had been expecting in the spring now looks even longer and more painful,” Yellen said during a September discussion in which she urged more Fed support for the economy. “We’re recovering from the worst global and economic financial meltdown since the Great Depression.”

But Hoenig, in explaining his opposition in November, said, “I strongly disagree with the course being charted today ... We may see some short-run improvement but not long-run.”

In his book ‘The Courage to Act’, published last year, Bernanke said he was ‘irked’ by comments Hoenig made in a newspaper interview the next day criticising the Fed’s move. Bernanke said he was also surprised by amount of criticism decision generated from conservative economists and Republican leaders in Congress.

But he defended the bond purchases as the right call at a time when the Fed had reduced its key interest rate as far as it could. The Fed had announced an initial bond buying programme in 2008 at the height of the financial crisis. But with the recovery lagging, the central bank decided more needed to be done. It launched a second bond programme in November 2010.

There would be a third round of bond purchases announced in September 2012. All together, they would push the Fed’s balance sheet to an unprecedented level of $4.5 trillion, a four-fold increase from the Fed’s holdings before the start of the financial crisis in the fall of 2008.