Bubble. Burst. Liquidity. Repeat

We are in an equilibrium of sorts, but it is an equilibrium of crises

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Just waiting to pop
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John Phelan
On 24 June 2013 23:02

In March 2000 the dot com bubble burst. From a peak of 5,048.62 on March 10th, 24 percent up on late 1999, the NASDAQ Composite index had fallen to half that by late 2000. GDP growth slumped and unemployment steadily climbed from under 4 percent in late 2000 to a peak of 6.25 percent in mid-2003.

On January 3rd, 2001, Alan Greenspan acted and cut the Fed funds rate to 6 percent. By June 2003 it was down to 1 percent where it stayed until June 2004. The effects are well known. This wave of liquidity was directed by government action like the Community Reinvestment Act, government bodies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and a minefield of moral hazard in a financial sector which knew it would be bailed out of any trouble, into a housing bubble. 

That bubble burst too. With inflation on its way up from 2 percent in mid-2003 to 4.7 percent in October 2005, Greenspan gradually raised the Fed funds rate, reaching 5.25 percent in June 2006. But this crippled many people who had borrowed at lower rates to buy property. The number of new foreclosure starts in the US increased by more than 50 percent to 1.1 million between 2006 and 2007.

Assets backed with these non-performing loans crashed in value. Banks holding them saw their balance sheets ravaged. Seeing counterparty risk everywhere, banks stopped lending to each other and the LIBOR, usually about 0.15 percent above where the market thinks the bank rate will be in three months’ time, shot up to over 6.5 percent in August 2007. The credit crunch had arrived.

And Greenspan, his academic successor Ben Bernanke, and central bankers around the world reacted as they had to the bursting of the dot com bubble. The Fed funds rate went back down from 5.25 percent in September 2007 to 0.25 percent in December 2008. Likewise, between July 2007 and March 2009 the Bank of England slashed its Base Rate from 5.75 percent to 0.5 percent. Even the supposedly cautious European Central Bank reduced its key rate from 4.25 percent in summer 2008 to 1 percent by the spring of 2009.

When this failed to have the desired stimulative effect central bankers began trying to pull down the long end of the yield curve. Under Quantitative Easing the Bank of England spent £375 billion of newly printed money on British government debt. The Federal Reserve is spending $85 billion dollars a month on bonds.

There is a pattern here. A bubble in assets (dot com stocks) bursts and central banks react by hosing liquidity into the system. But this liquidity inflates another bubble (property) and when that bursts central banks react by hosing liquidity into the system...

In the high Keynesian noon of the post-war period it was widely thought that monetary policy was ineffective for macroeconomic management (it is debatable how much this is actually owed to Keynes). All that could be hoped for from monetary authorities was support for the fiscal policies which really had the clout to equilibrate the economy.

But this Keynesian paradigm fell apart with the stagflation of the 1970s. Money mattered was the lesson and it became the primary tool of macroeconomic management, replacing fiscal action, at least until the ‘Return of the Master’ following the credit crunch.

But what has this meant in practice? As interest rates are lowered in response to an adverse shock investment, calculations change, especially when, like Alan Greenspan, those behind the policy publicly promise its continuance. To the extent that this fosters a wealth effect, consumption, as well as investment, may be stimulated. And this, in fact, is exactly the way the policy is supposed to work.

But the rates cannot stay that low indefinitely, nor, despite the jawboning by monetary policymakers, are they intended to. At some point they will rise. Again, this actually is the way the policy is supposed to work.

And when those rates do rise what happens to those marginal investors who made their decision when rates were at their lowest? What happened to the NINJAs who bought condos in Michigan when interest rates were 1 percent when the rates went up in 2006? They were scuppered. And what will happen to all the enterprises which are currently dependent on interest rates remaining at their historic lows when those rates start to rise? It is because more people are now asking that question that markets have turned skittish recently, since Ben Bernanke even began to discuss a possible future ‘tapering’ of Quantitative Easing.

Those rates will have to rise at some point. But, when they do, whichever bubble we have now will burst. Our monetary authorities have printed themselves into a corner.

This is what passes for macroeconomic management. As one of the high priests of this bubble-onomics, Paul Krugman, advised in 2002 in the wake of the dot com bust “To fight this recession the Fed needs...soaring household spending to offset moribund business investment...Alan Greenspan needs to create a housing bubble to replace the Nasdaq bubble”. And no, that’s not taken out of context.

One of the great myths in economics is that of some sort of stable equilibrium. It is apparent that active monetary policy is little better at producing that than fiscal policy proved. Instead the economy is characterised by crises of increasing frequency and amplitude and the only solutions policymakers appear to have to deal with them will buy ever shorter-lived respite at the cost of increasing both the frequency and amplitude of crises.

We are in an equilibrium of sorts, but it is an equilibrium of crises. 

John Phelan is a Contributing Editor for The Commentator and a Fellow at the Cobden Centre. He has also written for City AM and the Wall Street Journal Europe. He blogs at Manchester Liberal and Tweets @TheBoyPhelan

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