The Fed Created Serial Bubbles by Policy

Henry C.K. Liu

This article appear on on June 18, 2009

A lot of criticism on the Obama plan for regulatory reform is focused on giving the Fed new powers to regulate banks and non-bank financial institutions on the ground that the Fed allegedly failed to spot the debt bubble that burst in 2007. But the Fed did not failed to spot the serial bubbles. It created them by policy. Greenspan, notwithstanding his denial of responsibility in helping throughout the 1990s to unleash the equity bubble, had this to say in 2004 in hindsight after the bubble burst in 2000: “Instead of trying to contain a putative bubble by drastic actions with largely unpredictable consequences, we chose, as we noted in our mid-1999 congressional testimony, to focus on policies to mitigate the fallout when it occurs and, hopefully, ease the transition to the next expansion.”

By the next expansion, Greenspan meant the next bubble which manifested itself in housing. The mitigating policy was a massive injection of liquidity into the banking system. There is a structural reason why the housing bubble replaced the high-tech bubble. (Please see my September 14, 2005 article: Greenspan, the Wizard of Bubbleland)

Alan Greenspan, who from 1987 to 2006 was chairman of the Board of Governors of US Federal Reserve - the head of the global central banking snake by virtue of dollar hegemony - embraced the counterfactual conclusion of Milton Friedman that monetarist measures by the central bank can perpetuate the boom phase of the business cycle indefinitely, banishing the bust phase from finance capitalism altogether.

Going beyond Friedman, Greenspan asserted that a good central bank could perform a monetary miracle simply by adding liquidity to maintain a booming financial market by easing at the slightest hint of market correction.

This ignored the fundamental law of finance that if liquidity is exploited to manipulated excess debt as phantom equity on a global scale, liquidity can act as a flammable agent to turn a simple localized credit crunch into a systemic fire storm.

Ben Bernanke, Greenspan's successor at the Fed since February 1, 2006, also believes that a "good" central banker can make all the difference in banishing depressions forever, arguing on record in 2000 that, as Friedman claimed, the 1929 stock market crash could have been avoided if the Fed had not dropped the monetary ball. That belief had been a doctrinal prerequisite for any candidate up for consideration for the post of top central banker by President George W Bush. Yet all the Greenspan era proved was that mainstream monetary economists have been reading the same books and buying the same counterfactual conclusion. Friedman's "Only money matters" turned out to be a very dangerous slogan.

Both Greenspan and Bernanke had been seduced by the convenience of easy money and fell into an addiction to it by forgetting that, even according to Friedman, the role of central banking is to maintain the value of money to ensure steady, sustainable economic growth, and to moderate cycles of boom and bust by avoiding destructively big swings in money supply. Friedman called for a steady increase of the money supply at an annual rate of 3% to achieve a non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment (NAIRU) as a solution to stagflation, when inflation itself causes high unemployment. (Please see my January 6, 2009 AToL article: Montarism Enters Bankruptcy)

The Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank annual symposium at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is a ritual in which central bankers from major economies all over the world, backed by their supporting cast of court jesters masquerading as monetary economists, privately rationalize their unmerited yet enormous power over the fate of the global economy by publicly confessing that while their collective knowledge is grossly inadequate for the daunting challenge of the task entrusted to them, their faith-based dogma nevertheless should remain above question. In 2005, the annual august gathering of cnetral bankers in August took on special fanfare as it marked the final appearance of Alan Greenspan as chairman of the US Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Among the several interrelated options of controlling the money supply, the Federal Reserve, acting as a fourth branch of the US government based on dubious constitutional legitimacy and head of the global central-banking snake based on dollar hegemony,  has selected interest-rate policy as the instrument for managing the economy all through the 18-year stewardship of Alan Greenspan, on whom many accolades were showered by invited participants in the Jackson Hole seminar in anticipation of his retirement early the next year.

Greenspan's formula of reducing market regulation by substituting it with post-crisis intervention is merely buying borrowed extensions of the boom with amplified severity of the inevitable bust down the road. The Fed is increasingly reduced by this formula to an irrelevant role of explaining an anarchic economy rather than directing it towards a rational paradigm. It has adopted the role of a cleanup crew of otherwise avoidable financial debris rather than that of a preventive guardian of public financial health. Greenspan's monetary approach has been "when in doubt, ease". This means injecting more money into the banking system whenever the US economy shows signs of faltering, even if caused by structural imbalances rather than monetary tightness. For almost two decades, Greenspan has justifiably been in near-constant doubt about structural balances in the economy, yet his response to mounting imbalances has invariably been the administration of off-the-shelf monetary laxative, leading to a serious case of lingering monetary diarrhea that manifests itself in runaway asset price inflation mistaken for growth.(Please see  my September 14, 2005 AToL article:
Greenspan, the Wizard of Bubbleland)

June 18. 2009