Thursday, February 12, 2009

Government deserves much blame for the financial crisis

Stanford University economics professor John Taylor says the government bears a lot of responsibility for the housing bubble and the resulting financial crisis.
My research shows that government actions and interventions — not any inherent failure or instability of the private economy — caused, prolonged and dramatically worsened the crisis.

The classic explanation of financial crises is that they are caused by excesses — frequently monetary excesses — which lead to a boom and an inevitable bust. This crisis was no different: A housing boom followed by a bust led to defaults, the implosion of mortgages and mortgage-related securities at financial institutions, and resulting financial turmoil.
Regarding the housing bubble:
Monetary excesses were the main cause of the boom. The Fed held its target interest rate, especially in 2003-2005, well below known monetary guidelines that say what good policy should be based on historical experience. Keeping interest rates on the track that worked well in the past two decades, rather than keeping rates so low, would have prevented the boom and the bust. Researchers at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have provided corroborating evidence from other countries: The greater the degree of monetary excess in a country, the larger was the housing boom.

The effects of the boom and bust were amplified by several complicating factors including the use of subprime and adjustable-rate mortgages, which led to excessive risk taking. There is also evidence the excessive risk taking was encouraged by the excessively low interest rates. ...

Other government actions were at play: The government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were encouraged to expand and buy mortgage-backed securities, including those formed with the risky subprime mortgages.
Regarding the financial crisis:
A third policy response was the very sharp reduction in the target federal-funds rate to 2% in April 2008 from 5.25% in August 2007. This was sharper than monetary guidelines such as my own Taylor Rule would prescribe. The most noticeable effect of this rate cut was a sharp depreciation of the dollar and a large increase in oil prices. After the start of the crisis, oil prices doubled to over $140 in July 2008, before plummeting back down as expectations of world economic growth declined. But by then the damage of the high oil prices had been done.

After a year of such mistaken prescriptions, the crisis suddenly worsened in September and October 2008. We experienced a serious credit crunch, seriously weakening an economy already suffering from the lingering impact of the oil price hike and housing bust.

Many have argued that the reason for this bad turn was the government's decision not to prevent the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers over the weekend of Sept. 13 and 14. A study of this event suggests that the answer is more complicated and lay elsewhere.

While interest rate spreads increased slightly on Monday, Sept. 15, they stayed in the range observed during the previous year, and remained in that range through the rest of the week. On Friday, Sept. 19, the Treasury announced a rescue package, though not its size or the details. Over the weekend the package was put together, and on Tuesday, Sept. 23, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson testified before the Senate Banking Committee. They introduced the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), saying that it would be $700 billion in size. A short draft of legislation was provided, with no mention of oversight and few restrictions on the use of the funds.

The two men were questioned intensely and the reaction was quite negative, judging by the large volume of critical mail received by many members of Congress. It was following this testimony that one really begins to see the crisis deepening and interest rate spreads widening.

The realization by the public that the government's intervention plan had not been fully thought through, and the official story that the economy was tanking, likely led to the panic seen in the next few weeks. And this was likely amplified by the ad hoc decisions to support some financial institutions and not others and unclear, seemingly fear-based explanations of programs to address the crisis.
His conclusion:
It did not have to be this way. To prevent misguided actions in the future, it is urgent that we return to sound principles of monetary policy, basing government interventions on clearly stated diagnoses and predictable frameworks for government actions.

Massive responses with little explanation will probably make things worse. That is the lesson from this crisis so far.
One problem with this narrative is that we were already well into the housing bubble by 2003. Many economists say that the housing bubble was initially caused by excessive savings in China and the Middle East, which resulted in ultra-low interest rates in the U.S. Rather than creating the housing bubble, it is much more likely that the Federal Reserve poured gas on an already burning fire.

John Taylor has a new book about the financial crisis coming out soon.


  1. is he saying that dislocations occur naturally, even in the omniscient free market, but it takes a central bank to really make a mess of things?

    word verification: regulana

  2. Taylor, after all, served loyally and eagerly the Bush Administration during this period of excess. Isn't too late for him to deplore the government he so eagerly supported?