Surviving Black Monday


I’d scrutinized the economy every working day for decades and had visited the Fed scores of times. Nevertheless, when I was appointed chairman in August 1987, I knew I’d have a lot to learn. That was reinforced the minute I walked in the door. The first person to greet me was Dennis Buckley, a security agent who would stay with me throughout my tenure. He addressed me as “Mr. Chairman.”

Without thinking, I said, “Don’t be silly. Everybody calls me Alan.”

He gently explained that calling the chairman by his first name was just not the way things were done at the Fed.

So Alan became Mr. Chairman.

Though I’d been a corporate director, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, as it is formally known, was an order of magnitude larger than anything I’d ever run—today the Federal Reserve Board staff includes some two thousand employees and has an annual budget of nearly $300 million. The Fed chairman has less unilateral power than the title might suggest. By statute I controlled only the agenda for the Board of Governors meetings—the Board decided all other matters by majority rule, and the chairman was just one vote among seven. Also, I was not automatically the chairman of the Federal Open Market Committee [FOMC], the powerful group that controls the federal funds rate, the primary lever of U.S. monetary policy. The FOMC is made up of the seven Board governors and the presidents of the twelve regional Federal Reserve banks. While the Board chairman is traditionally the chair of the FOMC, he or she must be elected each year by the members, and they are free to choose someone else. I expected precedent to prevail. But I was always aware that a revolt of the six other governors could remove all of my authority, except writing the Board agendas.

I was scheduled to run one of those meetings the following week, on August 18. 

The Reagan-era expansion was well into its fourth year, and while the economy was thriving, it was also showing clear signs of instability. Since the beginning of the year, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average had risen through 2,000 for the first time, the stock market had run up more than 40 percent—now it stood at more than 2,700 and Wall Street was in a speculative froth. Something similar was happening in commercial real estate.

The economic indicators, meanwhile, were far from encouraging. Huge government deficits under Reagan had caused the national debt to the public to almost triple, from just over $700 billion at the start of his presidency to more than $2 trillion at the end of fiscal year 1988. The dollar was falling, and people were worried about America losing its competitive edge—the media were full of alarmist talk about the growing “Japanese threat.” Consumer prices, which had gone up just 1.9 percent in 1986, were rising at nearly double that rate in my first days in office. Though 3.6 percent inflation was far milder than the double-digit nightmare people remembered from the 1970s, once inflation begins, it usually grows. 

These were vast economic issues, of course, far beyond the power of the Fed alone to resolve. Yet the worst course would be to sit idly by. I thought a rate increase would be prudent, but the Fed hadn’t raised interest rates for three years. Hiking them now would be a big deal. Any time the Fed changes direction, it can rattle the markets. The risk in clamping down during a stock-market surge is especially acute—it can pop the bubble of investor confidence, and if that scares people enough, can trigger a severe economic contraction.

Though I was friendly with many of the committee members, I knew better than to think that a chairman who had been around for a week could walk into a meeting and shape a consensus on such a risky decision. So I did not propose a rate increase; I simply listened to what the others had to say. The eighteen committee members were all seasoned central bankers and economists, and as we went around the table comparing assessments of the economy, it was apparent that they, too, were concerned. Gerry Corrigan, the gruff president of the New York Fed, said we ought to raise rates; Bob Parry, the Fed president from San Francisco, reported that his district was seeing good growth, high optimism, and full employment—all reasons to be leery of inflation; Si Keehn from Chicago agreed, reporting that the Midwest’s factories were running near full capacity and that even the farm outlook had improved; Tom Melzer of the St. Louis Fed told of how even the shoe factories in that district were operating at 100 percent.

The next opportunity to do so was two weeks later, on September 4, at a meeting of the Board of Governors. The Board controls the other main lever of monetary policy, the “discount rate” at which the Federal Reserve lends to depository institutions. This rate generally moves in lockstep with the rate on fed funds. Prior to the scheduled Board meeting, I spent a few days working my way up and down the corridor seeking out the governors in their offices, building consensus. The meeting, when it came, moved quickly to a vote—the rate increase, from 5.5 percent to 6 percent, was approved by the governors unanimously.