The Aug. 10 meeting of top Federal Reserve officials was among the most contentious in Ben Bernanke’s four-and-a-half year tenure as central bank chairman.
With the economic outlook unexpectedly darkening, the issue was a seemingly technical one: whether to alter the way the Fed manages its huge portfolio of securities.
But it had big implications: Doing so would plunge the Fed back into the markets and might be a prelude to a future easing of monetary policy, moves that divided the men and women atop the central bank.
At least seven of the 17 Fed officials gathered around the massive oval boardroom table, made of Honduran mahogany and granite, spoke against the proposal or expressed reservations. At the end of an extended debate, Mr. Bernanke settled the issue by pushing successfully to proceed with the move.
The debate over the decision to keep the Fed’s $2.05 trillion stock of mortgage debt and U.S. Treasury holdings from shrinking, described in interviews with several participants, set the stage for a more consequential discussion inside the Fed that remains very much alive: what to do next, if anything, about America’s stubbornly weak recovery and troublingly low inflation.
Mr. Bernanke gets an opportunity to elaborate on this crucial and unresolved question when he and other Fed officials gather Friday and Saturday, along with foreign counterparts and a gaggle of academic experts, at the Fed’s annual meeting in Jackson Hole, Wyo.