Thursday, December 20, 2007


In earlier posts ( Discretionary Monetary Policy I-III) I presented a brief overview of a hybrid monetarist/Austrian view of bubbles and business cycles. This explained the bursting of the ‘agriculture bubble’ in the 70’s, the tech bubble in the 90’s, and I related it to recent sub-prime mortgage issues.

Certainly these ideas are not my own, but just my application of certain ideas from macroeconomics, and many people may disagree, or be in denial about an infallible fed. But, there are many who offer corroborating analysis. As Gerald P. O’driscoll (former vice president of the Dallas Fed) notes in his Cato Institute article ‘Our Subprime Fed,’

“ The Fed cut the fed funds rate sharply after the bursting of the stock market bubble in March 2000…..the Fed cut rates far too long, fueling not only a vigorous economic expansion but also the housing bubble.”

Wayne Angell, a former Fed governor and personal advisor to Dick Cheney is quoted in a recent Fortune article;

"The Fed was extremely easy from 2002 to 2005. It was not desirable or necessary, and it set off this huge real estate boom.”

So, the idea that easy, discretionary monetary policy by the Federal Reserve played a role in recent sub-prime mortgage troubles certainly has merit among some prominent economists.

However, one thing cautioned as far back as my undergraduate coursework in money and banking, was the role that financial innovation and technological change may play when modeling the macro economy or predicting the effects of monetary policy. In the 90’s people were touting that information technology, debit cards, ATM’s etc were changing the way we must view money. In addition, IT made workers more productive, allowing expanded economic growth for a long period of time with very low unemployment without ‘overheating’ or triggering inflation. Of course, the tech bubble soon burst after that.

In ‘The Bear Flu and How it Spread,’ a recent Business Week article explains the role of financial innovation in the collapse of two Bear Stearns hedge funds. It describes a tweaked version of collateralized debt obligations ( CDO’s) that they tagged ‘Kilo’s. They were designed to encourage money market funds to get involved in the mortgage market by having other large banks such as Citigroup and Bank of America guarantee the investments. To the money market manager, there were decreased risks, and better returns from mortgage products vs. the traditional short term investments used historically. The big banks received fees and more fund sources for ultimately securitizing their mortgages, and Bear Stearns was profiting from selling these new innovative investment products.

Of course, with this model being repeated throughout the real estate and financial sector of the economy, a downturn could create problems, and it apparently did. One question of course, is what played a larger role in the grand scheme of things, easy money or financial innovation? It is hard to know. One thing is true, the market distortions and noise created by discretionary monetary policy make it hard to determine any thing for certain.


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