Book Review: Trillion Dollar Triage

I got to know this book because it was recommended by Warren Buffett and Ted Weschler. Indeed, the read didn’t disappoint. Trillion Dollar Triage is a gripping account of how the Fed, led by Jerome Powell, reacted to the Covid-19 crisis under the intense pressure from Wall Street, an unpredictable and bullying President in Trump and Congress. Jerome Powell never has a PhD in economics, something that many people presume is a prerequisite of being the Fed Chairman. But his Emotional Intelligence, communication skill and willingness to take bold actions seemed to be exactly what the country and the Fed needed in the time of unprecedented challenges in 2020.

I am not going to lie. I thought the book would be dry and bore me after a few chapters. Instead, I was hooked. What happened behind the scenes was recounted with exceptional details; which shows that the author did his homework and conducted a thorough research. I learned a great deal about the Fed, how it generally works and the tools that it has at its disposal such as rate adjustments, quantitative easing (QE) – the purchase of assets that are riskier than the Treasury bills, international swap lines – which makes the US dollars available to foreign banks, lending to certain parties in the economy etc…Interestingly, the author and the book were kind to Steve Mnuchin. I didn’t like the former Treasury Secretary, but he was portrayed as someone who was a reasonable deal-maker and an intelligent and hard-working person. You don’t get that kind of impression whenever he went on TV back then, do you?

If you are interested in macro economics and politics, this book will be a good choice.

“The central bank announced the Treasury-Fed accord on March 4, 1951, in an unexceptional, two-paragraph bulletin. Its significance would grow over time because it marked the beginning of what many commentators refer to as Fed independence. Going forward, the Fed would set interest-rate policy to ensure the economy functioned well rather than to support cheaper financing for the government, as the Fed had done since 1942 to support the war effort. Those boundaries have largely remained to the present day. The Treasury manages all of the money the government receives and pays out, while the Fed manages the supply of money in circulation to keep the economy stable.”

Excerpt From: Nick Timiraos. “Trillion Dollar Triage.”

“Most economists, including Yellen and others at the Fed, were guided by basic beliefs: first, that there is a direct inverse relationship between inflation and unemployment—if one goes down, the other must go up—and second, that there is a “natural rate of unemployment,” a level that evenly balances the supply and demand for labor. When unemployment falls below it, companies must compete for workers by driving up wages at a rate that can feed into higher prices. In order to tamp down an overheating economy, the Fed had traditionally raised interest rates.”

Excerpt From: Nick Timiraos. “Trillion Dollar Triage.”

“Ever since Marriner Eccles’s reforms in 1935, Fed policy had officially been decided by the sometimes-unwieldy Federal Open Market Committee. But policy gets shaped before the FOMC meetings by just three people, informally known as the Fed Troika: the Fed chair, the vice chair, and the president of the New York Fed, who also serves as vice chair of the FOMC. The Troika sets the agenda for each FOMC meeting. They refine the policy options and decide which papers or briefing memos should go out to committee members before each meeting. They steer the FOMC toward consensus. This was the power center of the Fed, and Powell had a historic opportunity to influence the selection of the Troika’s other two members.”

Excerpt From: Nick Timiraos. “Trillion Dollar Triage.”

Powell’s conversational style reflected his desire to reach an audience he felt the Fed at times overlooked—average citizens who didn’t work in markets and whose livelihood didn’t require hanging on every word of the Fed chair. They knew the Fed was important, but they might not know much more than that. At his briefings, Powell delivered short answers, used simple language, and spoke in a breezier manner than his academic predecessors—“a Jimmy Stewart of monetary policy,” as a former senior Fed economist put it.

An important part of communicating with the outside world focused on the 535 people who could make Powell’s life more difficult, or easier, if the going got tough: the lawmakers on Capitol Hill. And he wasn’t shy about letting people know that he thought this was one of the most important things the Fed chair could do. “I’m going to wear the carpets of Capitol Hill out by walking those halls and meeting with members,” he said in a July 12, 2018 radio interview.”

Powell also urged humility. The Fed should “give serious consideration to the possibility that we might be getting something wrong,” he said at his formal swearing-in ceremony”

Excerpt From: Nick Timiraos. “Trillion Dollar Triage.”

“Mnuchin, who was reviewing and approving specific provisions on his own. Democrats mostly saw Mnuchin as a fair and candid broker, though he sometimes yelled at Senate aides when they dared to explain the finer points of capital-markets mechanics: “I’ve worked on Wall Street! I know this!” Mnuchin wasn’t fazed when a Democratic senator, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, joined the negotiations by speakerphone and launched into a political diatribe about how terrible Trump was—the kind of speech usually reserved for the cameras.”

“Lawmakers were both impressed—Mnuchin showed up in person and rolled up his sleeves—and dismayed: his reluctance to delegate slowed progress. “This was $2.3 trillion, and I was working on behalf of the president, and I wanted to make sure I knew exactly what was in the deal,” said Mnuchin”

“Mnuchin’s zeal for delving into the most intricate lending details earned him the moniker “Secretary Minutiae” among some Fed and Treasury staffers. He was also reluctant to delegate, with the exception perhaps of Muzinich. White House staffers were routinely bemused at sending something to a Mnuchin deputy only to receive a call from the secretary himself, offering his input. Fed officials concluded they were able to pull Mnuchin their way more often simply because their teams of dozens of analysts could outwork him. “The guy was really smart, really hardworking, had a mind like a steel trap,” said a Fed official. “But he’s just one man.”

Excerpt From: Nick Timiraos. “Trillion Dollar Triage.”

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