Asset Bubbles: The Fed Makes a Bid

Policymakers like to make particular kinds of statements at a “low attention” moment, e.g., right before a holiday weekend. This gets items onto the public record but ensures they do not get too much attention. And if you are asked about these substantive issues down the road, you can always say, “we told you this already, so it’s not now news” – usually this keeps things off the front page.

Released on July 3rd (a federal holiday), and buried inside the Washington Post on Saturday (p.A12): An important speech (from June 26th) by the New York Fed’s controversial President, William C. Dudley.

If the Fed is to become the system or any kind of “macroprudential” regulator, what would it do with that responsibility? This is a hot topic for Capitol Hill in coming weeks as various committees take on this topic in whole or part.

Dudley says that the Fed can pop or prevent asset bubbles from developing. This would represent a major change in the nature of American (and G7) central banking. It’s a huge statement – throwing the Greenspan years out of the door, without ceremony.

It’s also an attractive idea. But how will the Fed actually implement? Senior Fed officials in 2007 and 2008 were quite clear that there is no technology that would allow them to “sniff” bubbles accurately – and this was in the face of a housing bubble that, in retrospect, Dudley says was obvious.

Dudley is quiet on whether or not, for example, we have an emergent bubble in emerging markets today. Is there also an effective bubble in US Treasuries, as John Campbell has argued persuasively?

“Asset bubbles may not be that hard to identify,” Dudley argues. Fine, but it would help to know exactly the Fed would do this ex ante – not using the rear view mirror.

Of course, if the Fed can’t get better at spotting bubbles, the implication is that no one can. Which means that “macroprudential regulator” is just a slogan – a nice piece of what Lenin liked to call “agitprop”.

And if macroprudentially regulating is an illusion, what does that imply? There will be bubbles and there will be busts. Next time, however, will there be financial institutions (banks, insurance companies, asset managers, you name it) who are – or are perceived to be – “too big to fail”?

You cannot stop the tide and you cannot prevent financial crises. But you can limit the cost of those crises if your biggest players are small enough to fail.

About Simon Johnson 101 Articles

Simon Johnson is the Ronald A. Kurtz (1954) Professor of Entrepreneurship at MIT's Sloan School of Management. He is also a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C., a co-founder of BaselineScenario.com, a widely cited website on the global economy, and is a member of the Congressional Budget Office's Panel of Economic Advisers.

Mr. Johnson appears regularly on NPR's Planet Money podcast in the Economist House Calls feature, is a weekly contributor to NYT.com's Economix, and has a video blog feature on The New Republic's website. He is co-director of the NBER project on Africa and President of the Association for Comparative Economic Studies (term of office 2008-2009).

From March 2007 through the end of August 2008, Professor Johnson was the International Monetary Fund's Economic Counsellor (chief economist) and Director of its Research Department. At the IMF, Professor Johnson led the global economic outlook team, helped formulate innovative responses to worldwide financial turmoil, and was among the earliest to propose new forms of engagement for sovereign wealth funds. He was also the first IMF chief economist to have a blog.

His PhD is in economics from MIT, while his MA is from the University of Manchester and his BA is from the University of Oxford.

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