21 April 2009

Minsky and the current crisis ~ Yellen

One of the critical features of Minsky’s world view is that borrowers, lenders, and regulators are lulled into complacency as asset prices rise. 3 It was not so long ago—though it seems like a lifetime—that many of us were trying to figure out why investors were demanding so little compensation for risk. For example, long-term interest rates were well below what appeared consistent with the expected future path of short-term rates. This phenomenon, which ended abruptly in mid-2007, was famously characterized by then-Chairman Greenspan as a “conundrum.” 4 Credit spreads too were razor thin. But for Minsky, this behavior of interest rates and loan pricing might not have been so puzzling. He might have pointed out that such a sense of safety on the part of investors is characteristic of financial booms. The incaution that reigned by the middle of this decade had been fed by roughly twenty years of the so-called “great moderation,” when most industrialized economies experienced steady growth and low and stable inflation. Moreover, the world economy had shaken off the effects of the bursting of an earlier asset price bubble—the technology stock boom—with comparatively little damage.

Chairman Bernanke has argued that other factors besides complacency were responsible for low interest rates in this period. 5 A glut of foreign saving mainly generated in developing countries such as China and India fueled demand for dollar-denominated assets. This ample supply of foreign savings combined with a low U.S. personal saving rate, large U.S. government deficits, and high productivity gains to produce a huge current account deficit. As a result, vast quantities of funds began “sloshing around” in our economy seeking investment projects.

Fed monetary policy may also have contributed to the U.S. credit boom and the associated house price bubble by maintaining a highly accommodative stance from 2002 to 2004. 6 This accommodative stance was motivated by what Greenspan called “risk management policy,” in which, to reduce the possibility of deflation, the funds rate was held below the level that would otherwise have been chosen to promote a return to full employment. 7 In effect, the Fed took a calculated risk. It took out some insurance to lower the chances of a potentially devastating deflationary episode. The cost of that insurance was an increased possibility of overheating the economy. These policy actions arguably played some role in our house price bubble. But they clearly were not the only factor, since such bubbles appeared in many countries that did not have highly accommodative monetary policies.

As Minsky’s financial instability hypothesis suggests, when optimism is high and ample funds are available for investment, investors tend to migrate from the safe hedge end of the Minsky spectrum to the risky speculative and Ponzi end. Indeed, in the current episode, investors tried to raise returns by increasing leverage and sacrificing liquidity through short-term—sometimes overnight—debt financing. Simultaneously, new and fancy methods of financial engineering allowed widespread and complex securitization of many types of assets, most famously in subprime lending. In addition, exotic derivatives, such as credit default swaps, were thought to dilute risk by spreading it widely. These new financial products provided the basis for an illusion of low risk, a misconception that was amplified by the inaccurate analyses of the rating agencies. This created a new wrinkle that even Minsky may not have imagined. Some of the investors who put money into highly risky assets were blithely unaware of how far out on a limb they had gone. Many of those who thought they were in the hedge category were shocked to discover that, in fact, they were speculative or Ponzi units.....

I would not advocate making it a regular practice to use monetary policy to lean against asset price bubbles. However recent experience has made me more open to action. I can now imagine circumstances that would justify leaning against a bubble with tighter monetary policy. Clearly further research may help clarify these issues.


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