Mortgage Crisis – How much more proof do you need?

Posted by Jason | Posted in Economics, Government | Posted on 28-10-2009

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In a great article on Reason.com, the view that the Fed caused our current crisis is highlighted in great detail. While the article focuses on the anti-Fed movement in general, you can see from the quotes and understanding of politicians and economists that the Fed is responsible for the housing boom.

Blame-the-Fed sentiment now stretches across the spectrum of economic thought, from Keynesians such as DeLong to monetarists (who generally want the bank to maintain a fixed rate of money supply growth). In October 2008, the monetarist Anna Schwartz, co-author with Milton Friedman of one of the most important books of monetary economics, A Monetary History of the United States, told The Wall Street Journal: “If you investigate individually the manias that the market has so dubbed over the years, in every case, it was expansive monetary policy that generated the boom in an asset. The particular asset varied from one boom to another. But the basic underlying propagator was too-easy monetary policy and too-low interest rates that induced ordinary people to say, well, it’s so cheap to acquire whatever is the object of desire in an asset boom, and go ahead and acquire that object.”

While Anna Schwartz believes the Fed is neccessary, she admits that the Fed’s expansive monetary policy causes a boom in an asset market, the most recent being the housing market. The last one being the tech bubble.

Even the Obama administration has gotten into the act. “Monetary policy around the world was too loose too long,” Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner told PBS interviewer Charlie Rose in March. “And that created this just huge boom in asset prices, money chasing risk. People trying to get a higher return. That was just overwhelmingly powerful.”

Even Geithner, although he doesn’t blame Greenspan and the Fed directly, basically said the Fed’s low interest rate policies caused the spike in housing prices and encouraged the risk that politicians now blame on greed. Did Geithner forget he was on TV?

In this time of political ferment, Stephen Axilrod, a longtime Federal Reserve staff director and monetary policy guru, has issued a memoir from MIT Press titled Inside the Fed. Axilrod admits that Fed interest rate actions precipitated the crisis without letting that fact dent either his admiration for the institution or his belief in its necessity. Still, Axilrod notes something that should encourage Fed skeptics of all varieties: that “a country’s monetary policy is almost necessarily limited by conditions generated from the political, philosophic, and social ethos of the time.”

Here former Federal Reserve, and lover of the Fed, admits the Fed’s actions caused the housing bubble. He then says the Fed is only as powerful as political, philosophical, and social conditions permit.

But the Fed doesn’t have a stellar track record of timing monetary shifts with scientific precision, and any actions that rein in inflation, thereby cutting off the short-term stimulative effect that governments love, are bound to be politically dangerous both to the Fed and to the president who appoints its overseers. As Bernanke admitted at his televised town hall meeting in July, the Fed can maintain its independence only if it can “show that we are producing good results,” and while he added lip service to independence, the people he must show those results to are Congress and the administration. Though he was appointed to a new four-year term in August, if he flubs inflation, Bernanke will be facing a whole new wave of political attacks.

Bernanke states here that the Fed must show results to Congress and the Administration, which highlights the biggest problem with the Fed. While we have plenty of confirmation that the Fed caused the housing bubble, we still have politicians that want it to exsit. Why?

Because they want the Fed to, as Bernanke said, “produce good results.” What are good results? Was all Americans owning a home a good result? Was refinancing your equity away to drive up consumer spending a good result? Was as Austrian economist show, driving up unwarranted business investments a good result?

This is at the heart of the problem for any government institution. While the Fed claims its independence, it is swayed by politics.  The market delivers based what billions and billions of individual transactions say. It is fine tuned by every transaction made. Government on the other hand tries anticipating what the market needs, and it is always wrong. This is why communism was an abject failure. Government cannot conceive of the circumstances and motivations of billions of transactions. There is no difference in the ability of communist dictators trying to decide the right amount of light bulbs to be produced, and the Fed trying to decide what interest rates should be. Both of them are trying to decide for the market what they believe should be over what would normally be decided by millions of individuals acting in their own interest.  It has never worked, and it will never work. It eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now let’s hope it leads to tearing down the wall of the Fed.

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