August 21, 2009 / 2:14 PM / 10 years ago

TEXT: Bernanke's speech at Jackson Hole Fed conference

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Below is the text of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s speech at the Kansas City Fed Bank conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

“By the standards of recent decades, the economic environment at the time of this symposium one year ago was quite challenging. A year after the onset of the current crisis in August 2007, financial markets remained stressed, the economy was slowing, and inflation—driven by a global commodity boom—had risen significantly. What we could not fully appreciate when we last gathered here was that the economic and policy environment was about to become vastly more difficult. In the weeks that followed, several systemically critical financial institutions would either fail or come close to failure, activity in some key financial markets would virtually cease, and the global economy would enter a deep recession. My remarks this morning will focus on the extraordinary financial and economic events of the past year, as well as on the policy responses both in the United States and abroad.

One very clear lesson of the past year—no surprise, of course, to any student of economic history, but worth noting nonetheless—is that a full-blown financial crisis can exact an enormous toll in both human and economic terms. A second lesson—once again, familiar to economic historians—is that financial disruptions do not respect borders. The crisis has been global, with no major country having been immune.

History is full of examples in which the policy responses to financial crises have been slow and inadequate, often resulting ultimately in greater economic damage and increased fiscal costs. In this episode, by contrast, policymakers in the United States and around the globe responded with speed and force to arrest a rapidly deteriorating and dangerous situation. Looking forward, we must urgently address structural weaknesses in the financial system, in particular in the regulatory framework, to ensure that the enormous costs of the past two years will not be borne again.

September-October 2008: The Crisis Intensifies When we met last year, financial markets and the economy were continuing to suffer the effects of the ongoing crisis. We know now that the National Bureau of Economic Research has determined December 2007 as the beginning of the recession. The U.S. unemployment rate had risen to 5-3/4 percent by July, about 1 percentage point above its level at the beginning of the crisis, and household spending was weakening. Ongoing declines in residential construction and house prices and rising mortgage defaults and foreclosures continued to weigh on the U.S. economy, and forecasts of prospective credit losses at financial institutions both here and abroad continued to increase. Indeed, one of the nation’s largest thrift institutions, IndyMac, had recently collapsed under the weight of distressed mortgages, and investors continued to harbor doubts about the condition of the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, despite the approval by the Congress of open-ended support for the two firms.

Notwithstanding these significant concerns, however, there was little to suggest that market participants saw the financial situation as about to take a sharp turn for the worse. For example, although indicators of default risk such as interest rate spreads and quotes on credit default swaps remained well above historical norms, most such measures had declined from earlier peaks, in some cases by substantial amounts. And in early September, when the target for the federal funds rate was 2 percent, investors appeared to see little chance that the federal funds rate would be below 1-3/4 percent six months later. That is, as of this time last year, market participants evidently believed it improbable that significant additional monetary policy stimulus would be needed in the United States.

Nevertheless, shortly after our last convocation, the financial crisis intensified dramatically. Despite the steps that had been taken to support Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, their condition continued to worsen. In early September, the companies’ regulator placed both into conservatorship, and the Treasury used its recently enacted authority to provide the firms with massive financial support.

Shortly thereafter, several additional large U.S. financial firms also came under heavy pressure from creditors, counterparties, and customers. The Federal Reserve has consistently maintained the view that the disorderly failure of one or more systemically important institutions in the context of a broader financial crisis could have extremely adverse consequences for both the financial system and the economy. We have therefore spared no effort, within our legal authorities and in appropriate cooperation with other agencies, to avert such a failure. The case of the investment bank Lehman Brothers proved exceptionally difficult, however. Concerted government attempts to find a buyer for the company or to develop an industry solution proved unavailing, and the company’s available collateral fell well short of the amount needed to secure a Federal Reserve loan of sufficient size to meet its funding needs. As the Federal Reserve cannot make an unsecured loan, and as the government as a whole lacked appropriate resolution authority or the ability to inject capital, the firm’s failure was, unfortunately, unavoidable. The Federal Reserve and the Treasury were compelled to focus instead on mitigating the fallout from the failure, for example, by taking measures to stabilize the triparty repurchase (repo) market.

In contrast, in the case of the insurance company American International Group (AIG), the Federal Reserve judged that the company’s financial and business assets were adequate to secure an $85 billion line of credit, enough to avert its imminent failure. Because AIG was counterparty to many of the world’s largest financial firms, a significant borrower in the commercial paper market and other public debt markets, and a provider of insurance products to tens of millions of customers, its abrupt collapse likely would have intensified the crisis substantially further, at a time when the U.S. authorities had not yet obtained the necessary fiscal resources to deal with a massive systemic event.

The failure of Lehman Brothers and the near-failure of AIG were dramatic but hardly isolated events. Many prominent firms struggled to survive as confidence plummeted. The investment bank Merrill Lynch, under pressure in the wake of Lehman’s failure, agreed to be acquired by Bank of America; the major thrift institution Washington Mutual was resolved by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) in an assisted transaction; and the large commercial bank Wachovia, after experiencing severe liquidity outflows, agreed to be sold. The two largest remaining free-standing investment banks, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, were stabilized when the Federal Reserve approved, on an emergency basis, their applications to become bank holding companies.

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