Friday, March 27, 2009

Fed Tinkering and the Current Recession

Back in August 2007, the economist George Selgin wrote a clear-eyed explanation of how "fine-tuning" by the Federal Reserve created easy credit and, unintentionally, led to the housing bubble:

. . . Why did mortgage lenders earlier this decade start showering credit as if it were spewing from a public fountain? The answer is that credit was spewing from a public fountain – and that fountain was the Fed. In December 2000, the Fed began an unprecedented year-long series of rate cuts, reducing the federal funds rate from over 6 percent to just 1-3/4 percent – a level last seen in the 1950s. By mid-2003, two further cuts had reduced the rate to just 1 percent.

The general aim of these cuts was to keep a mild growth slowdown from getting worse. But they had the quite unintended effect of generating euphoria in the mortgage market by flooding it with funds. Lenders dramatically lowered mortgage rates and kissed old-fashioned lending standards goodbye. . . .

. . . It illustrates the late Milton Friedman's claim that the full effects of monetary policy changes happen only after "long and variable lags," when conditions that motivated the changes have passed into history. The resultis that fine-tuning often ends up promoting business cycles instead of dampening them.

The subprime lending crisis also shows that, while central banks certainly have the power to expand a nation's spending power, they can't guarantee that the extra power gets used as intended, namely, to give a roughly uniform boost to the overall demand for goods. On the contrary: The crisis supports the argument, first developed by Austrian-school economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, that the techniques central banks employ to increase spending power are bound to distort spending patterns by driving lending rates below their sustainable, "natural" levels.

By injecting the new money they create into credit markets, central banks create an artificially high demand for long-term investments, such as real estate, in which interest costs loom large. . . .

In hindsight, it's easy to say that the Fed blundered. But avoiding similar blunders in the future is another matter. The truth is that the Fed, as presently constituted, faces an impossible task: It can't tell whether its targeted rates are "natural" (and therefore sustainable) except in retrospect, when it's too late; and it will always be tempted to engage in fine-tuning, both because the Humphrey-Hawkins Act of 1978 calls for it to do so, and because a myopic and inadequately informed public rewards Fed bureaucrats for "doing something" even when they ought to stand pat.

Only institutional reform can get us out of this predicament. The Fed must be taken out of the fine-tuning business. Instead, it must observe a strict and unambiguous monetary rule, such as one calling for the Fed to announce and stick to an inflation-rate target.

Thanks to Cafe Hayek for resurrecting this excellent piece.

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