WASHINGTON -- Ben Bernanke presided over his first meeting as Federal Reserve chairman in March 2006 believing that the nation's economy could pull off a "soft landing" from falling home prices. Three months later, Bernanke had begun to grasp that he and others had underestimated the risk that housing posed to the economy.
Newly released transcripts of Fed meetings during Bernanke's first year as chairman show that, among Fed officials, he often expressed the most concern about housing. But no official, according to the transcripts, recognized the extent of the damage that a housing bubble would cause. A year later, the housing market's collapse helped send the nation into its worst recession since the Great Depression.
In fact, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, then a Fed official, expressed confidence in September 2006 that "collateral damage" from housing could be avoided. The transcripts released Thursday covered the eight meetings of the central bank's chief policymaking body, the Federal Open Market Committee, during 2006. That included the last meeting of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan in January of that year and Bernanke's first meeting in March after he had succeeded Greenspan as chairman.
The Fed releases minutes of the FOMC discussions three weeks after the meetings, but full transcripts do not come out until five years later.
The transcripts for 2006 show that at first Bernanke did not express concern about the cooling of the housing market after a boom that had pushed sales and home prices to record levels.
"I agree with most of the commentary that the strong fundamentals support a relatively soft landing in housing," Bernanke told his follow FOMC members at his first meeting as chairman in March.
Also in March, Bernanke said, "I think we are unlikely to see growth being derailed by the housing market, but I do want us to be prepared for some quarter-to-quarter fluctuations."
At his second meeting as chairman in May, Bernanke still seemed fairly confident. "So far we are seeing, at worst, an orderly decline in the housing market; but there is still, I think, a lot to be seen as to whether the housing market will decline slowly or more quickly.
However, by the June meeting, Bernanke was expressing more caution saying that the slowdown in housing was "an asset price correction" that bore watching.
"Like any other asset-price correction, it's very hard to forecast, and consequently it's an important risk and one that should lead us to be cautious in our policy decisions," Bernanke said.
By the September meeting, Bernanke sounded even more concerned about the impact on the broader economy from the slowdown in housing.
"I don't have quite as much confidence as some people around the table that there will be no spillover effect," Bernanke said.
By contrast, Geithner, who was then president of the Fed's New York regional bank, expressed more confidence that the economy could weather the troubles in housing, saying the issue would be the impact on consumer and business spending.
"We just don't see troubling signs yet of collateral damage and we are not expecting much," Geithner said at the September FOMC meeting.
The discussion by the members of the FOMC, the Fed board members in Washington and 12 regional bank presidents, gave no indication that any of them foresaw the devastating impact that the collapse of the housing bubble would have. The country fell into a deep recession and severe financial crisis that led to the loss of more than 8 million jobs.
Bernanke and other Fed officials have said that they failed to see the severity of the shock waves from the housing bust. But the transcripts of their closed-door discussions in 2006 provide new details about how the central bank was responding to the unfolding crisis.
The transcripts of the final meeting of the year, in December, showed that Bernanke was still expecting that the economy would experience a "soft landing" in which growth would slow enough to cool inflation but not drop into a recession.
His comments came a year before the start of the Great Recession, which economists say began in December 2007 and lasted until June 2009.
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Federal Reserve Surprised by Housing Bust, Transcripts Show
Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +32%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 2,273
% home value down from peak: -12.42%
Columbus hit its median home value peak in the first quarter of 2006. Since that time, home values have declined a relatively modest 12.4%, including a 3.4% drop last year. By the second quarter of 2012, Fiserv projects that homes in the area will lose another 2.3% of their value. Median family income in Columbus is above the national average, and unemployment is just 8%, a full percentage point less than the national average. Despite the fact that things don’t look so bad for the Columbus housing market compared to other regions, the city foreclosure rate still increased by 32% last quarter. A total of 2,273 homes were foreclosed upon during that time.
Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +35%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 1,743
% home value down from peak: -59.3%
There is arguably no single housing market with a worse long-term outlook than southwest Florida, and the Cape Coral-Fort Myers region is the worst of these. Housing prices in the have already dropped 59.3% from their peak, and Fiserv project them to decline another 12.2% by the second quarter of next year. According to Corelogic, 47% of the homes in the Cape Coral-Fort Myers area are worth less than their mortgages because of declining values. Foreclosures have increased 35% in the last quarter, and with no sign of recovery in the immediate future that trend may worsen in the coming months.
Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +36%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 1,348
% home value down from peak: -59.1%
As of last month, Vallejo-Fairfield had the second-highest foreclosure rate in the country, with one out of every 51 homes being foreclosed upon in the third quarter of this year. This was a 36% increase in foreclosures from the second quarter. Home values have dropped 7.5% in the past year and are projected by Fiserv to drop an additional 4.9% by the second quarter of 2012. A remarkable 53% of homes in the region are worth less than their mortgages. This is the seventh highest rate of homes with underwater mortgages in the country.
Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +41%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 2,174
% home value down from peak: -54%
Fresno’s economy has continued to suffer since housing prices began to drop in 2006. It currently has an unemployment rate of 14.9%, which is one of the highest in the country. Home prices peaked in the first quarter of 2006 and have been decreasing since. The metropolitan area also has one of the highest underwater mortgage rates in the country, with a negative equity share of nearly 46%. In the last year alone home prices have dropped 11%.
Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +44%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 1,039
% home value down from peak: -53.4%
More than 1,000 homes were foreclosed upon in the Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville region last quarter, a 44% increase from the previous three-month period. Nearly half of the region’s homes are worth less than their mortgages. With Fiserv projecting home values would drop 7.1% by next year and another 4.9% the year after that, things may just get even worse.
Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +49%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 2,559
% home value down from peak: -39.3%
Jacksonville has experienced a quarterly increase in foreclosures of nearly 50%. Home prices have dropped 39.1% since their peak in the second quarter of 2006. The metropolitan area’s negative equity share also exceeds 46%, making it among the worst in the country for underwater mortgages. Home prices are expected to decrease another 10.7% by the second quarter of 2012.
Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +55%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 1,956
% home value down from peak: -15.9%
Nearly 2,000 homes were foreclosed upon during the last quarter, a 55% increase from the previous three months. Unlike many of the regions on this list with accelerating home foreclures, Cincinnati’s local economy is doing fairly well. Home prices are only down 15.9% from their peak in the first quarter of 2006. Unemployment and median family income are both better than average. One possible explanation for this recent increase may be that nearly a third of the total decline in home value since the peak has occurred in the past 12 months.
Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +57%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 1,673
% home value down from peak: -51.4%
The Sarasota-Bradenton-Venice metropolitan area has seen the third largest increase in the country in foreclosures in the third quarter. However, only 1,673 homes out of the 311,475 on the market were foreclosed upon. The housing market has suffered a great deal since housing prices peaked in the first quarter of 2006. Since then, overall home prices have dropped 51.4%.
Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +67%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 2,003
% home value down from peak: -15.8%
The Boston metropolitan area is considered to have a particularly resilient housing market. In the most recent quarter, however, foreclosures have increased 67%. Home prices have only dropped 15.8% since they peaked in the third quarter of 2005. The national average is -32.3%. From the second quarter of 2010 to the second quarter of 2011, home prices dropped a mere 1.7%.
Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +151%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 1,358
% home value down from peak: -14.9%
Albuquerque’s housing market, like Boston’s, is relatively healthy. While home prices decreased 32.3% nationally after their peak, home prices in Albuquerque only decreased 14.9% since they peaked. Regardless, foreclosures have recently skyrocketed. In the third quarter of 2011, the number of foreclosures in Albuquerque increased 151%. According to New Mexico Business Weekly, the lack of job creation in the area has been a major contributor to this problem.