01 June 2012

In Defense of Gambling with Borrowed Chips, Part I

I’ll pick up where I left off last week in a discussion of Gravelle’s review of my book, Gambling with Borrowed Chips.
She writes as if my analyses are unclear, i.e. she isn’t sure what Faille “really intends.” Yet she does seem to get the interpretation right in what follows, and I take that as evidence for the proposition that I was tolerably clear after all.

She says that my analysis is “that the commonly cited causes of the crisis – speculation combined with leveraging, deregulation, and other problems – are not, in fact, its causes.”
Right so far: and those aren’t even, in themselves, “problems” either!

She continues that Faille “apparently views the cause as the expansionary monetary policies of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, a claim that he appears to make based on the low interest rates set by the Fed. (In other parts of the book, he also seems to blame the Fed for shoring up the economy when asset prices were falling during the Greenspan years.)”
Yes, I make both of those points, and I “really intend” them both. Let us pause on them in that order. My book makes the point that entering the new century, the Fed Funds rate (a rate target not under direct Fed control, but a measure of its self-defined success) was at 6.5 percent. Greenspan pressed to lower the target in several steps starting in January, so that in early September, before the 9/11 attacks, the rate was 3.5 percent.

Of course, after those attacks the Fed sought to forestall panic by lowering the rate further, to 1.25. If you only have a hammer (or only think you have a hammer) all problems look like nails.

Gravelle thinks it odd, though; that I should consider these repeated lowerings to be at all inflationary. She says that “accelerating inflation while at full employment, rather than low interest rates, should be the sign of easy money.” Huh? What, after all, is an interest rate? It is the rate at which one party allows another to use a certain sum of money over a specified period. Any lowering of interest rates indicates, ceteris paribus, that money has gotten easier to get: in other words, it is precisely a sign of “easy money.” Easy relative to what? Well, relative to the condition before that lowering of the interest rates, for a start. Relative to a healthy economic condition? That’s the 64 thousand/million/billion dollar question.

She cites Bernanke as an authority for the proposition that monetary policy was not "closely related to the principal trigger -- the housing finance crisis." My own concern isn't simply how was the trigger pulled, but rather how did we end up pointing a loaded gun at our collective heads in the first place? And since I regard Bernanke as part of the problem, not part of the solution, I hope she understands that I look elsewhere for counsel.

I look for instance, to Jurgen Stark, a central banker in good standing himself, specifically a member of the executive board of the European Central Bank, who delivered a paper to a meeting in Hong Kong in April 2011, in which he acknowledged and discussed with some candor the role of central banking in the financial crisis. He said that during the 1990s, a period of "great moderation," when monetary policy seemed to be working in just the way the textbooks said it should, trouble was actually brewing. Central bankers acquired the false "impression that the monetary policy battles of yesteryear had been won once and for all." Hubris, if you will.

My own view is that it will prove much easier to live without central bankers than it ever will to train central bankers who will be free of hubris.   

What about Gravelle’s quizzical parenthesis? The Fed “shored up the economy” on certain occasions during the Greenspan years. What, she seems to want to ask me, could possibly be wrong with that? Actually, in response to the peso crisis, the east Asian troubles, the Long Term Capital Management meltdown, what the Fed actually shored up was the values of certain assets, not the “economy” as such. There is a difference between treating symptoms and treating the underlying disease processes.

When the Fed invoked what came to be known as the “Greenspan put” repeatedly in the 1990s, in effect it gave the US economy a few pills each time of Mother's Little Helper. This “shored up” wakefulness and attentiveness, but that didn’t make it a good thing. If you keep yourself awake artificially, the come-down, when it does arrive (and in the nature of things it will) must be that much more dramatic. In the literal instance, such as come-down from stimulants is known as … a crash. Intriguing term, no?          
Let's look to Jurgen Stark's speech again. He said that the central bank activism of the 1990s could have encouraged "and did encourage, in my view -- markets' tendency to opt for risky strategies, over-exposures and exuberance."  Yes, too much "shoring up" did that. The more perceptive of the central bankers see that themselves, these days.

So yes, for both of the sets of reasons that puzzle Gravelle, I find that Greenspan and his associates at the Fed culpable, in over-reacting both to the crises of the 1990s and to the rather mild recession of 2000-2001, of giving us an over-hyped economy through the Bush years, one that had to end in something much like the way it did in fact end.
I realize that is a view with which many “mainstream” economists will differ. Everybody who thinks for themselves ends up non-mainstream in something though; and I am happy to be non-mainstream in this.    

Gravelle doesn’t really argue with my analysis in any very sustained way. She notes that she finds contrary arguments “compelling,” but she then quickly sets the matter aside and moves on to something that bugs her more, that does get her sustained attention, my “prescriptions.” That's where we really seem to be crossing swords. Wait for it, though, fencing fans.


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