The Fed’s excuse makers still in high gear
from Dean Baker
Remember when then Federal Reserve Board Chair Ben Bernanke assured the public that the problems in the financial system will be restricted to the subprime market? This one ranks, along with some comments from and about Alan Greenspan, as one of the worst economic predictions of all time. In other words, the folks at the Fed really missed it.
This is worth remembering because it seems that the Fed is trying to get the excuse making going in advance for the next economic crisis. The NYT reported on a Fed conference where they expressed skepticism as to whether they could stop the next crisis.
There are a range of views presented, not all of them silly. (Using interest rates as the primary tool against bubbles is not a good strategy.) However the idea that the Fed is helpless against bubbles looks like some serious lowering of expectations.
The distortions created by the housing bubble were easy to see by anyone with open eyes. Residential construction as a share of GDP was hitting record levels even as demographics would have suggested the opposite. (Baby boomers were retiring or at least downsizing.) Consumption was hitting record highs as a share of disposable income, driven by housing bubble wealth. House prices had surged by 70 percent above inflation, after tracking the overall inflation rate for the prior century. And the bad loans were there en masse for anyone who cared to notice.
The Fed has a variety of tools but the most simple one is simply talking about a bubble. The financial markets will not ignore information (not a mumbled “irrational exuberance”) from the Fed as they showed in response to Fed Chair Janet Yellen’s comments about bubbles in the social media and biotech sectors.
There is no reason that the Fed should not have been issuing clear warnings (i.e. massive quantities of research) documenting the bubble from 2002 onward. The only cost to the Fed is a few researchers time, the potential savings are in the trillions. That seems a no-brainer. The Fed should have also been using its regulatory power to curb the issuance and sale of bad mortgages, but information is a good place to start.
Also, it is not plausible for an organization that argues an inflation target is important to say that information from the Fed has no impact on markets. It obviously believes otherwise.