The Best Stimulus Right Now?
Lucas finds the Fed’s actions in adding more than $600 billion to bank reserves in the past few months to be “the boldest exercise of the Fed’s lender-of-last-resort function” in its history. He believes, as I do, that in recent months financial decision-makers have engaged in a “flight to quality”—I call it a flight from risk—and that by injecting reserves into the banks, the Fed has effectively exchanged risky assets (the banks’ collateral securities) for a riskless asset (deposits at the Fed), thereby satisfying their demand to hold additional high-quality assets when the market itself was not supplying more such assets.
Viewing the Fed’s action as an effective way to stimulate spending, Lucas also applauds it as superior to the alternative policies to achieve this objective. “It entails no new government enterprises, no government equity positions in private enterprises, no price fixing or other controls on the operation of individual businesses, and no government role in the allocation of capital across different activities.”
I agree that these alternative policies are probably worse than direct Fed lending to the banks, but, unlike Lucas, I do not view the Fed’s abrupt, massive lending with equanimity. Indeed, as I indicated three days ago, I view the banks’ current, gigantic holdings of excess reserves as a veritable Sword of Damocles with the potential to cause a near-collapse of the dollar’s purchasing power.
I also differ with Lucas—and with Bernanke and nearly all of the mainstream commentators on the financial scene during the past several months—in that whereas he views the present situation as a liquidity crisis, I view it as fundamentally an insolvency problem for many banks and other financial institutions, inter alia. By treating this situation as if it were a liquidity crisis, like the banking situation from 1929 to 1933, one may moderate the recession for a short while or even reverse it, but only at the expense of preserving a plethora of malinvestments that ought to be liquidated by balance-sheet adjustments and, in many cases, bankruptcies, so that the valuable assets can be reallocated to their most valuable uses, rather than being kept impounded in zombie enterprises, including zombie banks. Because Lucas, in good mainstream-economics style, views the current situation in terms of aggregates, he is not looking inside the capital stock and therefore he is failing to see that the easy credit and reckless lending from 2002 to 2007 gave rise to a great many rotten investments that are not viable except by some species of Fed or Treasury bailout.
If the economy is to experience healthy sustainable growth, this garbage needs to be thrown out—and the incompetent managers and investors who created it need to be removed from positions of control over assets they have demonstrated they cannot manage responsibly and successfully. Free enterprise is a system of profit AND loss. If the government rides to the rescue of every large-scale, politically connected loser, the system will grow ever more rotten from the top down.
Yes, this way of proceeding entails short-run pain, but the alternative only pushes the pain into the future while ensuring that when it strikes, it will be even more severe.
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Bill Woolsey - 12/30/2008
It doesn't matter why there is an increase in the demand for base money. If it is a demand for liquidity or a flight to quality, the result will be the same. The market process that corrects for a shortage of base money is a decrease in the price level, including nominal incomes like wages. This is something to be avoided. The only signal that firms receive is lower sales at current prices. Firms generally do lower prices but also decrease production and employment. The decrease in production and employment is unnecessary. Further, it disrupts contracts. Basically, creditors and debtors have to negotiate a transfer of wealth because of a bet about the purchasing power of money. Contrary to other reasons for default, closing down to free up resources for other uses is _never_ what should be happening. Still further, because of the zero lower bound on nominal interst rates, the deflation raises real interest rates.
The way to avoid these undesirable consequences is for the Federal Reserve to increase the quantity of base money enough to match the increased demand. Again, it doesn't matter why the demand for base money has increased.
It is certainly true that having the Federal Reserve avoid recession and deflation due to a shortage of base money will result in fewer losses, defaults, and bankruptcies. However, such a policy doesn't prevent all losses, defaults, and bankruptices. In particular, it is perfectly consistent with financial institutions that lent into the housing bubble failing.
I can imagine a speculative bubble popping without there being any impact on the amount of base money demanded. If that happened, then the Fed would not need to do anything. But there are many pausible avenues by which popping a speculative bubble indirectly results in an increase in the amount of base money people what to hold. Even if these avenues are based upon some kind of irrational panic, still...the proper response is to accomodate the demand.