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Financial Crises and the Federal Reserve's Punch Bowl

Why did the U.S. financial system nearly collapse last year? People blame Wall Street’s excessive greed and risk-taking. But without easy money, the massive risk-taking could not have happened.

To be sure, financial firms leveraged up—that is, they did a lot of business with borrowed money. That juiced up revenues and bonuses in the boom—and exacerbated losses in the downturn. Selling notes based on questionable mortgages as collateral was one method for tapping into the money sloshing around.

Without abundant credit, it would not have been possible to borrow so much and in so many different ways. Banks create credit but are subject to myriad controls by the Federal Reserve System. Money was plentiful because of Fed policy.

Politicians, pundits, and the Obama administration want to impose new regulation on the financial system, giving wider powers to government agencies. Depending on how and to what extent they implement that agenda, the Federal Reserve—alongside other agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission—stands to gain greater authority. Hence the Fed’s track record is a timely and pertinent subject.

Although the institution now commands unquestioning acceptance, its inception was controversial. Richard Timberlake, in his history of monetary policy in the United States, quotes a congressman shortly after the 1913 passage of the law that created the Federal Reserve System: “This act establishes the most gigantic trust on earth, such as the Sherman Antitrust Act would dissolve if Congress did not by this Act expressly create what by that Act it prohibited.”

That gigantic trust has correspondingly gigantic effects on the economy, through multiple roles and powers. As overseer of ordinary banks the Fed makes sure they play by the rules. As lender of last resort it can keep banks going through cash-flow problems. Beyond its supervision of individual banks the Fed pursues economy-wide goals.

It operates various levers that reduce or expand the supply of money and credit. In what is generically called monetary policy, the Fed uses the levers to boost a drooping economy—as is happening at present—or cool down an overheated one. In theory those efforts benefit society at large.

In reality—well, let’s take a look at the 1930s and our own time to understand the Fed’s role in the two most dramatic financial crises of living memory.

Stability Found and Lost

Two seminal insights emerged from the path-breaking A Monetary History of the United States, 1867–1960 (1963) by Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz. They argued that the Federal Reserve worsened the banking collapse of the 1930s and probably killed off a potential recovery by tightening money. In reaction to a drain on U.S. gold reserves, the Fed clamped down on an already shrinking money supply, thereby turning an ordinary recession into what came to be known as the Great Depression.

Current Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke agrees with that conclusion and is certainly not repeating the mistake. He has eased money in every way it can be eased.

But Friedman and Schwartz offered a broader lesson as well. They showed that the stock of money became subject to greater fluctuations after the Fed took over the control of money from the gold standard system. “The blind, un-designed, and quasi-automatic working of the gold standard turned out to produce a greater measure of predictability and regularity—perhaps because its discipline was impersonal and inescapable—than did deliberate and conscious control exercised within institutional arrangements intended to promote monetary stability,” Friedman and Schwartz wrote.

By the late twentieth century it looked as though central bankers had taken this criticism to heart. They had reason to congratulate themselves on what was called the Great Moderation. Since the mid-1980s both prices and output growth had been reassuringly stable. In a 2004 speech Bernanke argued that this was primarily due to improved monetary policy, although economic change and plain old luck also may have played a role, too.

At that time Bernanke was not yet Fed chairman, but he was a member of the board of governors, a position he held from 2002 to 2005. Current Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank from 2003 until this year. These facts are worth recalling because there is a tendency to concentrate the blame on former chairman Alan Greenspan. But whatever one thinks of Greenspan, the officials who currently make policy were there with him as the Fed sowed the seeds of financial crisis.

In retrospect those seeds were already discernible in the late 1990s. The steep rise in housing prices had started, encouraged by a stock bubble that created the illusion of wealth. In 1998 the Fed eased interest rates several times in response to panic after Russia defaulted on its bonds and the related near-failure of a large hedge fund, Long-Term Capital Management. This policy reassured investors, who subsequently bid up share prices to the stratosphere in 1999 even as the Fed reversed course.

The stock bubble burst in early 2000, and the economy stalled. Interest-rate cuts are prescribed and expected in a recession, so it is no surprise that the Fed took that course. But even after the economy recovered, rates stayed exceptionally low in comparison to what they would have been by the standard of the Great Moderation.

Stanford University economist John Taylor has used a measure known as the Taylor Rule to demonstrate that monetary excess lasted several years, into 2006. The title of Taylor’s new book says it all: Getting Off Track: How Government Actions and Interventions Caused, Prolonged, and Worsened the Financial Crisis.

Not everybody agrees that monetary policy was loose during the Greenspan era. David Henderson and Jeffrey Rogers Hummel argued in the March issue of The Freeman that monetary policy was not expansionist from 2001 to 2006 as measured by the declining growth of monetary aggregates. The Taylor Rule, however, allows the comparison of two periods—and the federal funds rate was lower in the 2000s than in the 1980s.

Another explanation of the monetary excess, endorsed by Bernanke and Greenspan, is that there was a global glut of savings. But Taylor shows that worldwide there was no such glut because the surplus savings in Asia and the Middle East were offset by a savings gap in other countries, in particular the United States.

It is fair to say that most of us partook of the Fed’s generous punch, whether by running up credit-card debt, buying houses beyond our means, trading with borrowed money, or making 30 percent on exotic debt instruments. Monetary excess meant that borrowing was easy; mortgages were to be had for a song. Housing prices rose at amazing rates year after year. With the hazard of price declines out of sight and out of mind, homeowners, developers, and banks overextended themselves.

It was an extraordinary boom; hence the following bust was also extraordinary. In effect, the stability of the 1980s Great Moderation was over by the time Bernanke credited monetary policy for fostering that stability.

What Failed

The bubble-and-collapse sequence is now attributed to a failure of capitalism, to use the title of a new book by Richard Posner, a judge and prolific author. According to a widely held view, the private financial system is intrinsically unstable, with leverage a central element in its penchant for self-destruction. Had the system been properly regulated and restrained, it would not have gone haywire. Hence whatever is not sufficiently regulated should be nailed down to avoid similar disasters in the future. Much of the media reflects that view.

And yet the Fed and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) between them already have massive regulatory powers over banks and broker-dealers, including investment banks. What is more, they and other agencies were part of the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets, set up after the crisis of 1998 to deal with systemic risk—the kind of danger that came up so frequently in 2007–2008.

Despite all the regulatory powers, a crisis broke out. Posner may represent current conventional wisdom when he writes that the government’s myopia, passivity, and blunders played a critical role in allowing the recession to balloon, but there would have been a crisis anyway regardless of those shortcomings.

The alternative view, represented by Taylor (following in the footsteps of Ms. Schwartz and the late Mr. Friedman), is that monetary policy turned what might have been mild cyclical fluctuations into a big bubble, inevitably leading to a big collapse. No easy money, no crisis.

Regarding the central bank’s multiple functions, its stance in the supervision of individual banks appears to have been of a piece with its broader policy. The Fed as overseer of banks could have demanded that they reduce their use of leverage, but the Fed as maker of monetary policy was providing the wherewithal for that leverage.

Hence the let-them-leverage regulatory stance was not accidental or myopic; it was consistent with deliberate monetary policy. If policymakers were concerned about the galloping credit expansion, they should not have let money go loose in 2003–2006. Lacking such concern, the Fed had no reason to get banks to reduce their risk. The whole institution took this track, not just Alan Greenspan.

Controlling or Creating Risk?

There’s no question private action results in economic cycles, largely because human beings have mental biases that keep them focused on the near term. The key point, though, is that even the largest private actor does not have the impact of the gigantic banking trust. Monetary policy is system-wide; policy mistakes have ramifications across the economy.

So the Fed by itself can create systemic risk, even as people call for expanding its powers to control the systemic risk posed by market participants like banks and hedge funds.

The Fed actively implemented measures that destabilized the system in the 1930s and again in the 2000s, albeit in different ways. The mistake was different—back then the Fed tightened in a downturn; this time it kept money too loose in an upturn. But there was the same fundamental consequence of financial and economic instability.

Timberlake thus summarized the Federal Reserve’s track record: “It comes across as a prototypical governmental institution operating under the rule of men rather than the rule of law.” To prevent misguided monetary interventions, the discretion of the people who run the institution should be limited.

Friedman argued for rule-based monetary policy, specifically that the Fed should follow a rule to keep the money supply growing steadily at a fixed rate of 3 to 5 percent a year. This turned out to be difficult to implement, given that the money supply and its relation to the economy are complicated.

This is where the Taylor rule, which describes actual policy during the Great Moderation, comes in. Taking that policy as a template, the Fed can set the short-term interest rate in accordance with a constant formula based on inflation and output.

Compared to Friedman’s fixed rate, the formula is more flexible.  But it keeps interest-rate policy predictable and transparent. If followed consistently, rule-bound monetary policy, combined with proper enforcement of existing regulations for banks and broker-dealers, would prevent the excesses seen in recent years.

Government Intelligence and the Nirvana Fallacy

Instead, what’s being advocated is broader activity by policymakers. Posner, for instance, draws the conclusion that “we need a more active and intelligent government to keep our model of a capitalist economy from running off the rails.” It is interesting that he sees a need not just for more-active government but more intelligent government. If government action has not been intelligent in the past, why expect it to be intelligent in the future?

We’re talking about institutions with overarching powers that have caused a variety of harms, from deliberate Fed policies that created instability to the SEC’s inability to detect fraud even after being told about it, misleading investors into believing that all was well with Bernard Madoff. (See my May Freeman article on the Madoff case) If there is more government activity of this sort, there will be even worse disasters.

One way to prevent another round of government-made debacles would be to replace the central bank with market-based money, thereby imposing an impersonal discipline—to use the words of Friedman and Schwartz. But following the Taylor Rule is a more likely solution, since it serves the goal Fed officials themselves say they want to pursue, namely, more predictable and transparent policy.

Those calling for greater interventionism tend not to engage the issue of what the government does in reality. There is a presumption that regulation is the cure-all, even as we live through the effects of a systemic policy failure. Economist Robert Solow, in a review of Posner’s book, writes that Panglossian ideas about “free markets” encouraged lax or no regulation of a potentially unstable financial apparatus.

When you consider the actual role of the Federal Reserve in crises, it is the notion of government activism as the solution to financial uncertainty and fluctuations that comes across as Panglossian.

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