Current Economic and Financial Conditions: Extraordinary Times Have Required Extraordinary Measures

By Bernanke, Ben S. | Business Economics, October 2008 | Go to article overview

Current Economic and Financial Conditions: Extraordinary Times Have Required Extraordinary Measures


Bernanke, Ben S., Business Economics


Good afternoon. I am pleased to have once again the opportunity to address the National Association for Business Economics. My remarks today will focus on recent developments in the financial sector and the economy and on the challenges we face.

As you know, financial systems in the United States and in much of the rest of the world are under extraordinary stress, particularly the credit and money markets. The losses suffered by many banks and nonbank financial firms have both constrained their ability to lend and reduced the willingness of other market participants to deal with them. Great uncertainty about the values of financial assets, particularly more complex and opaque assets, has made investors extremely reluctant to bear credit risk, resulting in further declines in asset prices and a drying up of liquidity in a number of funding markets. Even secured funding has become expensive and difficult to obtain, as lenders worry about their ability to sell collateral in illiquid markets in the event of default. In addition, many securitization markets, such as the secondary market for private-label mortgage-backed securities, remain closed or impaired.

Considerable experience in both industrialized and emerging economies has shown that severe financial instability, together with the associated declines in asset prices and disruptions in credit markets, can take a heavy toll on the broader economy if left unchecked. For this reason, the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, and other agencies are committed to restoring market stability and are working assiduously to ensure that the financial system is able to perform its critical economic functions. Recent actions by the Congress have given the Treasury new tools and resources to address the stressed conditions of our financial markets and institutions. The Federal Reserve has also been granted a new authority, the ability to pay interest on bank reserves, which will allow us to expand our lending as needed to support the system while better managing the federal funds rate. These tools will provide important additional support for the government's efforts to strengthen financial markets and the economy.

1. Recent Financial Developments and Governmental Response

Let me briefly review recent financial developments. On the heels of nearly a year of stress in credit markets, investors' and creditors' concerns about funding and credit risks at financial firms intensified over the summer as mortgage-related assets deteriorated further, economic growth slowed, and uncertainty about the economic outlook increased. As investors and creditors lost confidence in the ability of certain firms to meet their obligations, their access to capital markets as well as to short-term funding markets became increasingly impaired, and their stock prices fell sharply. Among the companies that experienced this dynamic most forcefully were the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs), Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; the investment bank Lehman Brothers; and the insurance company American International Group (AIG).

The Federal Reserve believes that, whenever possible, such difficulties should be addressed through private-sector arrangements--for example, by raising new equity capital, as many firms have done, by negotiations leading to a merger or acquisition, or by an orderly wind-down. Government assistance should be provided with the greatest reluctance and only when the stability of the financial system, and thus the health of the broader economy, is at risk. In those cases when financial stability is threatened, however, intervention to protect the public interest may well be justified.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac present cases in point. The Federal Reserve had long warned about the systemic risks posed by these companies(1) large portfolios of mortgages and mortgage-backed securities, as well as the problems arising from the conflict between shareholders' objectives and the government's goals for the two firms.

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Current Economic and Financial Conditions: Extraordinary Times Have Required Extraordinary Measures
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