As discussed in Part 1, some of the policymakers responsible for this calamity have started to apologize. On January 3 Chairman Bernanke admitted that rather than using rate hikes back in 2004 to deflate the housing bubble, the Fed should have used “[s]tronger regulation and supervision aimed at problems with underwriting practices and lenders’ risk management”.
There appear to be at least three reasons for Bernanke’s admission that the Fed did not do its job. First, and most obviously, Bernanke is up for reappointment (his term expires January 31)—and he will not sail through. The public is mad as hell, and politicians will have to put him through the wringer or face voter’s wrath in the next election. So Bernanke will have to appear contrite, and will apologize for his misdeeds many more times while Congress makes him sweat it out.
Second, Congress is actually considering whether it should strip the Fed of all regulatory and supervisory authority, given its miserable performance over the past decade—during which the Fed has consistently demonstrated that it has neither the competence nor the will to restrain Wall Street’s bankers. Since Greenspan took over the helm, the Fed has never seen a financial instrument or practice that it did not like—no matter how predatory or dangerous it was. Adjustable rate mortgages with teaser rates that would reset to levels guaranteed to produce defaults? Greenspan praised them. Liar loans? Bring them on! NINJA loans (no income, no job, no assets)? No problem! Credit default swaps that let one gamble on the death of assets, firms, and countries? Prohibit government from regulating them! So Bernanke has to grovel and beg Congress to let the Fed retain at least some of its authority.
Third, many commentators blame the Fed for the crisis, arguing that it kept interest rates too low for too long, fueling the real estate bubble. Bernanke argues “When historical relationships are taken into account, it is difficult to ascribe the house price bubble either to monetary policy or to the broader macroeconomic environment”. If he can convince Congress that the problem was lack of oversight and regulation he can shift at least some of the blame to Treasury and Congress—since it was Treasury Secretary Rubin, and his protégé Summers, as well as Barney Frank, Christopher Dodd, and many others (significantly, Democrats who will now decide the Fed’s fate) who pushed through the deregulation bills in 1999 and 2000. He figures that if the Fed now supports re-regulation, he will be forgiven and the Democrats will be too embarrassed to admit their own misdeeds. (Significantly, Dodd has announced his retirement, in recognition of the role he played in creating the crisis. Another mea culpa on the way?)
While I do believe the Fed should be stripped of all such authority, I am sympathetic to his argument about monetary policy. Low interest rates do not cause bubbles. The Fed kept interest rates low after the NASDAQ crash because it feared deflation in the face of significant downward pressures on wages and prices globally. The belief was that low interest rates would keep borrowing costs low for firms and households, helping to promote spending and recovery. In truth, spending is not very interest sensitive and the economy stumbled along in a “jobless recovery” in spite of the low rates. What was actually needed was a fiscal stimulus (if anything, low rates are counterproductive because they reduce government interest spending on its debt—as Japan’s experience taught us over the past couple of decades—but that is a point for another blog).
Still, the Fed was following conventional wisdom, and only began to gradually raise rates when job growth picked up in 2004. Over the following years, the Fed kept raising rates, and economic growth improved. (So much for conventional wisdom!) The worst excesses in real estate markets began only after the Fed had started raising rates, and lending standards continued their downward spiral the higher the Fed pushed its target interest rate. In other words, contrary to what many are arguing, the Fed DID raise rates but this had no impact in real estate markets.
Why not? Two main reasons. First, recall that Greenspan had promoted adjustable rate mortgages with teasers. No matter how high the Fed pushed rates, lenders could offer “option rate” deals in which borrowers would pay a rate of 1 or 2 percent for two to three years, after which there would be a huge reset. Lenders ensured the borrowers that there was no reason to worry about resets, since they would refinance into another option rate mortgage before the reset. That is the beauty of ARMs—they virtually eliminate the impact of monetary policy on real estate.
Second, and this was the key, house prices would only go up. At the time of refinance, the borrower would have far more equity in the home, thus obtain a better mortgage. Further, the borrower could flip the house and walk away with cash. While I will not go into this now, public policy actually encouraged homeowners to look at their houses as assets, rather than as homes. (And now that many are walking away from underwater mortgages—treating houses as assets that became bad deals—policy makers and banksters are shocked, shocked!, that borrowers are treating their homes as nothing but bad assets.)
In truth, when speculation comes to dominate an asset class, there is no interest rate hike that can kill a bubble. If one expects asset prices to rise by 20%, 30%, or more per year, an interest rate of 10% will not dampen enthusiasm. To kill the housing boom, the Fed would have had to engage in a Volcker-like double-digit rate hike (in the early 1980s, he raised short-term interest rates above 20%). There was no political will in Washington (either at the Fed or the White House) for such drastic measures. Nor was there any reason to do this. Bernanke is quite correct: the Fed could have and should have killed the real estate boom with much less pain by directly clamping down on lenders, prohibiting the dangerous practices that were rampant.
Is there any reason to believe that Bernanke is the right Chairman, or that the Fed is the right institution, to lead the effort to re-regulate and re-supervise the financial sector? Quite simply, no.
The Bernanke-led Fed still does not understand monetary operations, as indicated by its recently announced plan to unwind its balance sheet. Over the course of the crisis, the Fed invented new procedures such as auctions through which it provided reserves. Throughout, it always was focused on quantities, rather than prices, using quantitative constraints on the size of the auctions. Further, Bernanke continually promoted “quantitative easing”, reflecting the view that quantities are what matter. Now, the Fed has begun to worry about the size of its balance sheet—and also the size of reserve holdings of the banking system (the other side of the balance sheet coin, because the Fed buys assets by issuing reserves). Still following the thoroughly discredited theory of Milton Friedman, too many bank reserves are supposed to promote too much lending which then causes too much spending and hence inflation. Thus, Bernanke and many outside the Fed fret about how the Fed can reduce outstanding reserves to prevent incipient inflation. The Fed proposes to create new bonds it will sell to reverse the “quantitative easing”.
Actually, the Fed’s tool is price, not quantity, of reserves. When the crisis hit, the Fed should have opened its discount window to lend reserves without limit, to all comers, and without collateral. That is how you stop a run. The Fed’s dallying and dillying about worsened the liquidity crisis, but it eventually provided the reserves that the financial institutions wanted to hold and its balance sheet eventually grew to $2 trillion. Banks are still worried about counterparty risk and possible runs, so they remain willing to hold massive amounts of reserves. When they decide risks have declined, they will begin to reduce reserve holdings. This will not require any special practices by the Fed. Banks will repay their loans from the Fed, using reserves. This automatically reduces reserves and the size of the Fed’s balance sheet. They will offer undesired reserves in the overnight, fed funds market. Since many banks will be trying to unload reserves at the same time, this will put downward pressure on the fed funds rate. The Fed will then offer to sell assets it is holding to mop up the excess reserves (banks will use reserves to buy assets the Fed offers). This will also reduce reserves and the size of the Fed’s balance sheet. All of this will happen automatically, following the same procedures the Fed has always followed. All it needs to do is to watch the fed funds rate, and when it falls below target the Fed will drain reserves to relieve the downward pressure on overnight rates.
Quantitative easing was a misguided notion, and reversal of quantitative easing is similarly misguided. It simply indicates that Bernanke still does not understand how the Fed operates. In truth, formulating and implementing monetary policy is extremely simple and can be reduced to the following:
- Offer to lend reserves at the discount window at 50 basis points to all qualifying institutions;
- Pay 25 basis points on reserve holdings;
- Perform par clearing of checks between banks, and for the Treasury.
Surely President Obama can find a chair who can do that.
The Fed’s relationship with banks is too cozy to make it a good regulator. It is, after all, owned by private banks. The Fed’s district banks are often run by bankers, and district Fed presidents take turns sitting on the policy-making FOMC. There is a particularly incestuous relationship between the NYFed and Wall Street banks—with Timmy Geithner as a prime example of the dangers posed (“I’ve never been a regulator” proclaimed the former head of the NYFed). It does not have the proper culture to closely supervise financial institutions. Its top body, the Board of Governors, are political appointees often with no experience in regulation (many are academic economists, typically mainstream and with a free market orientation). While the FDIC was also mostly asleep at the wheel over the past decade, it does have the proper culture and experience to take over responsibility for regulating and supervising the financial sector. With some management changes, and hiring of a team of criminologists tasked to pursue fraud, the FDIC is the right institution for this job.