Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Avoiding another bubble

Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve face a number of very difficult challenges in the years ahead. They include:

• Resisting pressure to monetize deficits, which would eventually cause high inflation.

• Implementing an exit strategy from the massive monetary easing of the past year.

• Maintaining the Fed's independence, which has been compromised by the direct and indirect bailout of financial institutions and congressional attempts to micromanage the central bank.

• Properly calculating asset prices and the risk of asset bubbles according to the Taylor rule, an important guideline central banks use to set interest rates.

• Supervising and regulating the financial system more effectively, particularly in the role of "systemic risk" regulator.

From 2002 to 2006, the Fed moved slowly because the recovery appeared anemic and because of significant deflationary pressures. This time around, the recession is more severe—unemployment is at 9.8% and is expected to peak above 10%, and we are experiencing actual deflation. Therefore, the incentive not to exit too soon will be greater and the risk of creating another bubble is greater. Indeed, the sharp increase in the stock market and commodities, and narrowing of credit spreads since March, are partly due to a wall of global liquidity chasing assets and already causing asset inflation.

Over time, once the fed-funds rate is normalized, incorporating asset prices into monetary policy making is also necessary to ensure financial stability. While it is correct that the fed-funds rates may not be the most effective instrument at controlling asset and credit bubbles, excessively cheap money is always a source of such bubbles. So faster normalization of the fed-funds rate will eventually be important.

The Fed also needs a greater regulatory backbone. The Fed had the power to regulate mortgage markets but failed to use this power out of a misplaced deference to laissez-faire attitudes and Wall Street. Regulating mortgage markets requires a careful balance: short-term regulatory forbearance to avoid a greater credit crunch, along with medium-term countercyclical supervisory actions in order to prevent the emergence of further asset and credit bubbles.

Establishing financial stability—in addition to price stability and growth—is the essential role of the central bank. Achieving this goal in a way that avoids moral-hazard distortions, as with the too-big-to-fail finance institutions, and prevents another bubble in the next years will surely be one of the greatest challenges ever faced by the Fed.

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