Financial Crises and the Federal Reserve's Punch Bowl

Article excerpt

Why did the U.S. financial system nearly collapse last year? People blame Wall Street's excessive greed and risk-taking. But without easy money, the massive risk-taking could not have happened.

To be sure, financial firms leveraged up - that is, they did a lot of business with borrowed money. That juiced up revenues and bonuses in the boom - and exacerbated losses in the downturn. Selling notes based on questionable mortgages as collateral was one method for tapping into the money sloshing around.

Without abundant credit, it would not have been possible to borrow so much and in so many different ways. Banks create credit but are subject to myriad controls by the Federal Reserve System. Money was plentiful because of Fed policy.

Politicians, pundits, and the Obama administration want to impose new regulation on the financial system, giving wider powers to government agencies. Depending on how and to what extent they implement that agenda, the Federal Reserve - alongside other agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission - stands to gain greater authority. Hence the Fed's track record is a timely and pertinent subject.

Although the institution now commands unquestioning acceptance, its inception was controversial. Richard Timberlake, in his history of monetary policy in the United States, quotes a congressman shortly after the 1913 passage of the law that created the Federal Reserve System: "This act establishes the most gigantic trust on earth, such as the Sherman Antitrust Act would dissolve if Congress did not by this Act expressly create what by that Act it prohibited."

That gigantic trust has correspondingly gigantic effects on the economy, through multiple roles and powers. As overseer of ordinary banks the Fed makes sure they play by the rules. As lender of last resort it can keep banks going through cash-flow problems. Beyond its supervision of individual banks the Fed pursues economy-wide goals.

It operates various levers that reduce or expand the supply of money and credit. In what is generically called monetary policy, the Fed uses the levers to boost a drooping economy - as is happening at present - or cool down an overheated one. In theory those efforts benefit society at large.

In reality - well, let's take a look at the 1930s and our own time to understand the Fed's role in the two most dramatic financial crises of living memory.

Stability Found and Lost

Two seminal insights emerged from the pathbreaking A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960 (1963) by Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz. They argued that the Federal Reserve worsened the banking collapse of the 1930s and probably killed off a potential recovery by tightening money. In reaction to a drain on U.S. gold reserves, the Fed clamped down on an already shrinking money supply, thereby turning an ordinary recession into what came to be known as the Great Depression.

Current Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke agrees with that conclusion and is certainly not repeating the mistake. He has eased money in every way it can be eased.

But Friedman and Schwartz offered a broader lesson as well. They showed that the stock of money became subject to greater fluctuations after the Fed took over the control of money from the gold standard system.

"The blind, un-designed, and quasi-automatic working of the gold standard turned out to produce a greater measure of predictability and regularity - perhaps because its discipline was impersonal and inescapable - than did deliberate and conscious control exercised within institutional arrangements intended to promote monetary stability," Friedman and Schwartz wrote.

By the late twentieth century it looked as though central bankers had taken this criticism to heart. They had reason to congratulate themselves on what was called the Great Moderation. Since the mid-1980s both prices and output growth had been reassuringly stable. …