John Taylor and Ben Bernanke on the Great Recession
Who Was Right About What Went Wrong?
University of Gothenburg
University of Oxford
London School of Economics
In the autumn of 2007, the United States’ housing market collapsed, pushing the world economy to the brink of disaster. In the US, unemployment rates soared, trillions of dollars of wealth disappeared, and millions of Americans lost their homes in what is generally considered the most severe recession since the Great Depression of the 1930’s. In the aftermath, economists have diligently discussed the properties of the crisis, asking if it could have been prevented and if policymakers could have responded more prudently. The American economist John Taylor has accused US policymakers of paving the way for the housing bubble by conducting an excessively loose monetary policy in the years leading up to the crash, and of prolonging the crisis by responding with measures based on premises that were essentially misguided. Conversely, Ben Bernanke, then Chairman of the Federal Reserve and one of the main targets of Taylor’s critique, offers an opposing view. According to Bernanke, the low federal funds rates during the years 2002–2006 were sound, and did not contribute to the inflation of the housing market to the extent that Taylor describes. Rather, Bernanke claims, it was mainly regulatory flaws that caused the financial collapse, and the actions taken by policymakers prevented the financial system from imploding completely. This essay makes the argument that although monetary policy played a part in the build-up to the crash, it was by no means a defining factor. What sets the Great Recession apart from other economic downturns is the regulatory setting in which the housing bubble developed and the crisis unfolded. As such, the governors of the Federal Reserve are not culpable for the crisis’ occurrence. They, along with the US Treasury, are nevertheless culpable for the misguided policies that were enacted to resolve the situation. Much like Taylor suggests, the measures that were undertaken by the authorities rested on the false presumption that it was lack of liquidity rather than the persistence of counterparty risk that protracted the crisis. The situation could have been dealt with much more efficiently were it not for these misconceptions. Neither Taylor’s nor Bernanke’s argument is convincing on all counts. Rather, it is a combination of the two that offers the most accurate account of what happened.
One of the main points of disagreement between Taylor and Bernanke is the role of the Federal Reserve’s loose monetary policy during the years 2002–2006 in inflating the housing market. While Taylor is right in claiming that excessively low interest rates generally accommodate the creation of bubbles, he wrongly alleges that his rule for monetary policy, the Taylor Rule, is detailed enough to work as a reference point for how monetary policy should be conducted, regardless of context. Indeed, as Bernanke argues, the monetary situation in the US in the period 2002–2006 was complex in ways that are unaccounted for in the Taylor Rule. For example, the recovery after the dot-com bubble burst in 2001 was rapid, but did not push down unemployment to the extent that conventional wisdom would suggest. The Taylor Rule does not explicitly account for unemployment, but instead expects it to follow inflation and output as described by Okun’s law and the Phillips curve. Taking into consideration the low inflation rates of the years in question, Bernanke’s argument that raising the FFR at that time would have been deflationary is hardly unfounded. Indeed, while mainstream economic theory would have predicted unemployment to diminish as the economy recovered after 2001, it would also have predicted inflation to fall to very low levels had the Federal Reserve raised the FFR over the period that Taylor suggests. Additionally, as Bernanke points out, the sharp increases in housing prices started in 1998, well before the period of the allegedly too loose monetary policy.
Taken together, the evidence above indicates that while the low interest rates before the crisis played a role in inflating the housing market, it was not a major factor. The economic indicators of the time were ambiguous, and the Federal Reserve chose a policy path associated with avoiding the deflationary trap that had suppressed the Japanese economy over the past decades. Nevertheless, the Fed could have better appreciated the instability of the housing market and started raising interest rates in time to prevent the crash from turning into a worldwide financial disaster. If the FFR had been raised a couple of years earlier, the concealed risk in the securities markets could have been exposed without risking a system collapse. In such a scenario, it is plausible that the average creditworthiness of borrowers would have been higher, as lenders would not have had enough time to work their way down to the absolute bottom of the income/asset brackets. In Hyman Minsky’s words, financial practice would not yet have degenerated from “speculative finance” to “Ponzi finance.” As such, the mortgage default rates and banks’ leverage ratios would have been lower, and the recession more manageable. While monetary policy leading up to the crisis did contribute to its onset, the circumstances that magnified the crisis to a global collapse emerged as a result of the government’s exceedingly poor regulatory oversight.
Taylor finds that the countries where housing prices rose the steepest were also the ones that deviated the most from his monetary policy rule. He argues that this serves as evidence that the Federal Reserve’s lax monetary policy played a significant role in setting the stage for the crisis. While this statement likely has some truth to it, it suffers from several shortcomings. As mentioned earlier, Bernanke underscores that the housing boom started in 1998 when the FFR was well over 5 percent. Against this background, it is more likely that the regulatory situation both in the US and elsewhere is to blame for the housing boom and subsequent crisis. In 1999, around the same time that Bernanke alleges the boom started, the Clinton administration partially repealed the Banking Act of 1933 (or the Glass-Steagall Act). The act was adopted after the Great Depression to improve financial stability, and essentially separated investment banks and hedge funds from commercial banks. After the repeal, it became legal for financial institutions of all types to merge, thereby making them “too big to fail” and allowing them to engage in larger-scale speculation. This paved the way for a moral hazard and exposed depositors to speculative risk in the process. In addition, the partial repeal failed to give the Securities and Exchange Commission authority to regulate and scrutinise financial institutions, thus allowing for the creation of riskier and ever-more opaque derivatives. As such, the abolishment of parts of the Glass-Steagall Act drastically increased the scale of speculative operations and weakened regulatory oversight, thus shrouding the securities markets in ignorance.
Taylor elegantly compares the ensuing situation to a game of hearts, but with many queens of spades instead of just one. Everybody knew that most financial institutions’ balance sheets were riddled with queens of spades, i.e. toxic assets. The problem was that when the crisis hit, nobody could distinguish the toxic assets from the non-toxic ones, and thus, all assets of a kind sharply diminished in value. The indistinguishability of safe mortgage-backed securities from risky ones was in part due to the complexity of the financial instruments in question, and in part due to the failure of the rating agencies to accurately evaluate the risk of the constituent mortgages (Crotty, 2009). This is an issue of poor oversight as well; the rating agencies evaluated the riskiness of loans under the pressure of competition, and therefore consistently gave customers (e.g. banks) the ratings they required to sell off the loans as quickly as possible. Since there were no regulatory mechanisms in place to prevent this from becoming standard practice, it became hugely profitable for banks to grant loans to more or less anyone. The expansive access to credit led the housing market to boom. It is also worth mentioning that the expected future values of the homes that the mortgages financed were included as collateral in the risk evaluations. As such, the stability of the financial system was built on the premise that the US housing market could continue to boom indefinitely. This indicates that it was poor oversight, not lax monetary policy, that paved the way for the housing bubble and the subsequent crisis once the bubble burst.
In the wake of the crisis, when the flow of financial transactions had frozen and market interest rates had skyrocketed due to the increased uncertainty and risk, the Federal Reserve and the US Treasury set out to stimulate the economy to prevent it from collapsing altogether. Based on what measures the policymakers chose to enact, it seems they diagnosed the problem to be insufficient liquidity. Taylor correctly claims that they were mistaken—it was excessive counterparty risk, not liquidity, that petrified the financial markets. Among other things, policymakers tried to stimulate aggregate demand by giving out over 100 billion USD in cash to US households. The effects of these cash infusions quickly subsided and had little to no effect in terms of economic recovery. Next, they tried to reduce the financial friction in the system by adopting the so-called Troubled Asset Relief Programme of around 700 billion USD. As the name suggests, the programme sought to relieve troubled financial institutions of bad assets. However, the legislative text lacked a predictable framework as to what kinds of assets would be bought up, at what prices, and what the targeted institutions should do with the money. The consequences were that uncertainty and counterparty risk persisted, and that most of the money was used to buy US Treasury bonds and other safe assets that did not reduce the financial friction in the system (Taylor, 2009). Essentially, the mistake that the policymakers made was to conceive of the crisis as one of liquidity rather than counterparty risk. If counterparty risk in the system is high, then financial friction is high, and if financial friction is high, then neither monetary policy nor fiscal stimulus can restart the economy. This is because the increased risk offsets the effects of any lowering of the FFR or an increase in aggregate demand. Had the problem been diagnosed as excessive counterparty risk from the outset, then predictable and targeted quantitative easing could have been used immediately to remove the toxic assets from the system, thereby decreasing risk and uncertainty. Eventually, quantitative easing was used, but it could have been done much earlier (Taylor, 2009).
Neither Taylor nor Bernanke provides a satisfactory account of what went wrong before and during the Great Recession. Taylor is mistaken in claiming that the Federal Reserve’s lax monetary policy in the years leading up to the housing bust is to blame for the crisis. While this might have played a minor role, the fact that the boom began under rather strict monetary conditions and that the Federal Reserve had a strong rationale for its chosen policy path suggests that Bernanke is right that it was inadequate regulation that paved the way for the crash. Nevertheless, Taylor’s critique of the interventions that Bernanke’s Federal Reserve undertook to resolve the crisis is justified. Had it not been for Bernanke’s and other policymakers’ misconception of the crisis as a liquidity shortage rather than an issue of counterparty risk, the recession would have been much less painful. Thus, on a concluding note, future policymakers should enhance the discretion of regulatory authorities to prevent a similar situation from emerging again, and improve the targeting of interventions in the event of a crisis to ensure that they are potent enough to produce the desired effect.
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