Fed Watch: Bubbles and Policy

The Wall Street Journal carried a front page article today detailing changing views at the Federal Reserve regarding the policy treatment of emerging bubbles of speculative activity. Much of the ground has been well tread. Is monetary policy or regulatory policy the best mechanism to address bubbles? I tend to favor the latter category, should we have a regulatory environment that is not essentially captured by those policymakers are supposed to regulate. Interest rate policy is a rather blunt weapon that kills indiscriminately. For instance, I am sympathetic with the view that interest rates were not necessarily too low during the build up of the housing bubble. Indeed, relatively low rates of investment (equipment and software) growth suggests that real rates were actually too high. But capital flowed to housing instead of more productive investment activities because that was the path of least resistance. Policymakers could have chosen to put some grit on that path by, for example, aggressively evaluating lending standards with regards to products such as “Liar’s Loans,” etc., but chose to follow a hands off approach.

What caught my attention in the article was this passage:

Yet the question of whether and how to tackle bubbles before they burst is becoming a growing concern amid fears of new bubbles developing in commodities markets and in emerging economies. Gold prices are up more than 50% in a year’s time. China’s Shanghai Composite stock index is up more than 75% this year. Stocks in Brazil are up even more. Oil prices have rebounded. They remain far below last year’s peaks but a return to those highs could fuel inflation in goods and services more directly than tech stocks or housing did.

I think it is important to recognize what bubbles should be the focus of Federal Reserve concerns. After all, the Fed is charged with maintaining price stability and maximum sustainable employment in the United States. Why should the Fed be concerned with housing prices in Hong Kong or stock prices in Brazil and China? Don’t those bubbles fall under the responsible of foreign central banks? It seems clear that in such cases, the extent of the Fed’s concerns should be limited to the regulatory arena. Are US based banks lending into those bubbles, thereby setting the stage for negative feedback loops? If so, raise capital requirements on that lending, tighten underwriting standards, etc. Just don’t derail the US recovery by raising rates to pop a bubble in Brazil.

I will admit that oil prices can be a bit more tricky. The gains in oil prices seem silly given ongoing evidence that the world is awash in oil. From the WSJ:

Café owner Ken Kennard sees the glut in the global oil market as a potential environmental threat to this sleepy seaside tourist hub.

Mr. Kennard is worried about a fleet of oil tankers — almost 40 in all, each packing hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude and oil-derived products — that have anchored several miles off the coast of southeast England in recent months.

The heavy traffic stems from a near-record excess oil supply, a byproduct of the recession, that is prompting producers to stash oil offshore until they can find customers. The excess supply hasn’t stopped oil prices from surging almost 80% this year and padding the pockets of big oil producers like Royal Dutch Shell PLC and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

To be sure, some of the rise in the price of oil is attributable to the decline in the Dollar, a natural consequence of low US interest rates and an important channel for the transmission of monetary policy. But it is not clear that higher oil prices necessarily yield additional core inflationary pressure given the current institutional arrangements between labor and management. The recent experience has been that individuals were not able to convert high inflation expectations in 2008 into higher wages. Instead, the opposite occurred as consumption sunk and unemployment skyrocketed. All which means the Fed would need to think long and hard about leaning against the oil price increase if that entailed contractionary monetary policies; the costs are potentially high relative to the benefits. Here again, though, regulators need to be carefully evaluating the nature of lending into the oil space.

My views on this topic have shifted somewhat over the past two years. In early 2008, I was concerned that the Fed’s rush to lower rates was contributing to destructive oil price bubble. But, in retrospect, nations that pegged to the Dollar and thus imported the Fed’s easy policy were just as much, if not more, to blame, as those central banks failed to maintain policies appropriate for domestic conditions.

In short, the Fed does need to be aware of the full set of consequences of their policy stance. But bubbles abroad should not prevent the Fed from adopting the right policy stance for the US economy. Indeed, many of the bubbles discussed now clearly should not be the responsibility of the Fed.

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About Tim Duy 348 Articles

Tim Duy is the Director of Undergraduate Studies of the Department of Economics at the University of Oregon and the Director of the Oregon Economic Forum.

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