How to Blow a Bubble

Matt Taibbi has rightly directed our attention towards the talent, organization, and power that together produce damaging (for us) yet profitable (for a few) bubbles. Most of Taibbi’s best points are about market microstructure – not the technological variety usually studied in mainstream finance, but more the politics of how you construct a multi-billion dollar opportunity so that you can get in, pull others after you, and then get out before it all collapses. (This is also, by the way, how things work in Pakistan.)

In addition, of course, all good bubble-blowing needs ideology. Someone needs to persuade policymakers and the investing public that we are looking at a change in fundamentals, rather than an unsustainable and dangerous surge in the price of some assets.

It used to be that the Federal Reserve was the bubble-maker-in-chief. In the Big Housing Boom/Bust, Alan Greenspan was ably assisted by Ben Bernanke – culminating in the latter’s argument to cut interest rates to zero in August 2003 and to state that interest rates would be held low for “a considerable period”. (David Wessel’s new book is very good on this period and the Bernanke-Greenspan relationship.)

Now it seems the ideological initiative may be shifting towards Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS).

As Bloomberg reported on August 5th, “Goldman economists, led by Jan Hatzius in New York, now see a 3 percent increase in gross domestic product at an annual rate in the last six months of this year, versus a previous estimate of 1 percent. The new projections were included in a research note e-mailed to clients.”

Goldman’s public thinking, of course, has been that we face such slow growth that interest rates should be kept low indefinitely. There is, in their view, no risk of inflation – and no such thing as potentially new bubbles (e.g., in emerging markets). The adjustment process will go well, as long as monetary policy stays very loose – it’s back to Bernanke’s 2003 line of thinking.

This line of reasoning has been very influential – reinforcing Bernanke’s commitment not to tighten monetary policy in the foreseeable future and fitting in very much with the Summers model of crisis recovery. Just a couple of weeks ago, in his July 14 report, Jan Hatzius argued, “further stimulus remains appropriate” and “the appropriate debate is not whether fiscal and monetary expansion is appropriate in principle but whether it has been sufficiently aggressive.” I don’t know if he has revised this line in the light of the big upward revision in his growth forecast or whether he is still saying, “Ultimately, we do expect further stimulus, but it may take significant disappointments in the economic data and the financial markets before policymakers move further in this direction.”

Much faster growth than expected is, of course, in today’s context a good thing. But it also brings complications. If you keep monetary policy this loose for much longer, you will feed bubbles. And if you encourage even looser monetary and fiscal policy, there will be a costly reckoning not too far down the road.

Monetary policy orthodoxy under Greenspan did not care about bubbles in the least. Now we (led by Greenspan) have massively damaged our financial system, our real economy, and our job prospects, this view is under revision.

Of course, in principle you should tighten regulation around lending but, just like 2003-2007, who is really going to do that: the US, China, the G20? On this point, all our economic leadership is letting us down – although they are getting a powerful assist from people like Goldman (and Citigroup (NYSE:C) and JPMorgan (NYSE:JPM) and almost everyone else on Wall Street.)

Next time, our big banks will take another massive hit – quite possibly bigger than what we saw in 2008. Goldman and its insiders are ready for this. Are you?

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, 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'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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1 Comment on How to Blow a Bubble

  1. ________

    Read “Bernanke’s Dark Kingdom.


    I am going to show here that central banks have excessive powers which are coherent neither with democratic principles nor with morality. Their existence can not be justified from a mathematical point of view.

    Worse, in light of the exercise of their extraordinary power by Bernanke, I argue that they can pose a real threat to democracy, peace, privacy and individual freedom.

    Because of the immediate dangers that are evoked in these lines I strongly suggest that you reproduce my deeds.

    “I will argue here that, to the contrary, there is much that the Bank of Japan, in cooperation with other government agencies, could do to help promote economic recovery in Japan.

    Most of my arguments will not be new to the policy board and staff of the BOJ, which of course has discussed these questions extensively.

    However, their responses, when not confused or inconsistent, have generally relied on various technical or
    legal objections—- objections which, I will argue, could be overcome if the will to do so existed.

    Prof. Ben Shalom Bernanke
    Japanese Monetary Policy: A Case of Self-Induced Paralysis?
    For Presentation at the ASSA Meetings, Boston MA,
    January 9th, 2000.

    In my Tract: The Age of Turbulence: Plea for a New Economic Order I prove that after an unknown period of Irrational Exhuberance, which will inflate the Mother of All Asset Price Bubbles, we will have a Keynes’ Liquidity Trap, The Crash and The Deep Depression.

    In fluid dynamics, turbulence or turbulent flow is a fluid regime characterized by chaotic, stochastic property changes. This includes low momentum diffusion, high momentum convection, and rapid variation of pressure and velocity in space and time.

    It owns most of the discontinuous and chaotic properties of a Market Crash and of a Keynes’ Liquidity Trap.

    There is a remote possibility that The Crash and The Deep Depression, in a pattern similar to Hitler with The Great Depression, will allow the instauration of a totalitarian regime, an Adventure in a New World Order.

    The purpose of My Yield Curve is to promote a plausible alternative to The Deep Depression, The Adjusted Credit Free, Free Market Economy, our New Economic Order.

    It is a fair, prosperous and stable economy that protects its participants from the consequences of The Deep Depression.

    That economy is both liberal and libertarian.

    That New Economic Order does not discriminates and guarantees the individual freedoms of its participants.

    In order to reserve your option to participate you just need to register anonymously, before The Crash, the serial number of a €5 bank note in our Public Cra$h R€gi$t€r It is Free!.

    I have just updated a paragraph of my Tract: Model of the Yield Curve.


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