« A Sad Day | Main | Milton Friedman: Why Money Matters »

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Role of the Fed in Financial Crises

William Poole on what the Fed should do when financial instability strikes: "In most cases, nothing":

Responding to Financial Crises: What Role for the Fed?, by William Poole, St Louis Fed President: I am delighted to return to Cato, an organization with which I feel a natural affinity, especially through Bill Niskanen with whom I served as a member of the Council of Economic Advisers a quarter century ago. ... The key issue then, as today, is time inconsistency. It seems to make sense in the middle of a financial crisis for someone to bail out a failing firm or firms. However, the inconsistency is that, however sensible a bailout seems in the heat of crisis, bailouts rarely make sense as a standard element of policy. The reason is simple: Firms, expecting aid if they end up in trouble, hold too little capital and take too many risks. As every economist understands, a policy of bailing out failing firms will increase the number of financial crises and the number of bailouts. Along the way, the policy also encourages inefficient risk-management decisions by firms. ...

Federal disaster relief policy is exhibit A, but every company, financial or otherwise, knows that if it gets into trouble it is at least worth a major effort to attempt to secure a bailout because there is always a significant probability of success. ...

Now for the topic of the panel. What should the Fed do when financial instability strikes?

In most cases, nothing. The important principle here is support for the market mechanism rather than support for individual firms. The Fed has, appropriately, permitted many highly visible firms to fail without any attempt to provide support, or even any particular comment except to say that it does not intend to intervene.

Of course, the Fed has intervened from time to time. One important case was the provision of additional liquidity and moral support to the markets when the stock market crashed in 1987. The Fed also provided support to the market at the time of the near failure of Long Term Capital Management in 1998. In both cases the Fed cut the federal funds rate, which provided evidence to the markets that the Fed was on the job and prepared to provide extra liquidity as needed. I realize that the Fed’s presence in the negotiations for additional financial support for LTCM from other firms is controversial; I would simply emphasize that the Fed itself did not provide any financial support and, in my opinion, would not have done so if the effort to encourage support from other firms had failed.

Some observers have viewed the large expansion of hedge funds as a rising danger to financial stability, requiring additional regulation and Fed readiness to intervene. I myself believe the dangers of systemic problems from hedge fund failures are vastly overrated. The hedge fund industry is indeed large but it is also highly diverse and competitive. Many and perhaps most of the large positions taken by individual firms have other hedge funds on the opposite side of the transactions. I trust normal market mechanisms to handle any problems that might arise. ...

A very interesting case arose with the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Thinking back to my academic years before coming to St. Louis, I recall no discussion or journal articles analyzing the possibility that the payments system might crash because of physical destruction. But that is what nearly happened, because the Bank of New York, a major clearing bank, was disabled when the twin towers came down. Moreover, trading closed in the U.S. Treasury and equity markets, and banks were unable to transfer funds because the Bank of New York was not functioning. With normal sources of liquidity shut down, many banks faced the prospect of being unable to meet their obligations. The Fed’s provision of funds through the discount window and in other ways prevented a cascading of defaults around the world. No private entity would have been able to provide liquidity on such a massive scale.

I do not know what a totally unanticipated future systemic shock might be but am sure that the Fed needs to be ready to respond, and to some extent, invent the appropriate response on the fly to a currently unimaginable shock. That is surely what a central bank is for, among other things. At the same time, a great reluctance to intervene will serve the economy well in the long run.

I can summarize my position very succinctly. The Fed has a responsibility above all to maintain price stability and general macroeconomic stability to reduce the likelihood of economic conditions that would be conducive to financial instability. Included in this responsibility is provision of advice to Congress on needed legislative action to deal with possible risks. The largest of these risks on my radar screen arises from the thin capital positions maintained by government-sponsored enterprises and the ambiguity of whether Congress would or would not act to bail out a troubled firm. The time to deal with potential financial instability caused by structural weaknesses of the GSEs and their regulatory regime is before instability strikes. ...

Although prevention is the most important of the Fed’s responsibilities, without question the Fed needs to be prepared to provide liquidity support should markets be in danger of ceasing to function. We know a lot about this subject and have in place deep contingency arrangements to assure that the Fed itself will remain operational at all times. I do not see any way that these functions could be privatized; I believe the markets do have confidence that the Fed has necessary legal authority and the internal strength to act as necessary. That said, the Fed’s reluctance to act is also an important element of strength.

    Posted by on Thursday, November 16, 2006 at 06:03 PM in Economics, Fed Speeches, Monetary Policy | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (5)


    TrackBack URL for this entry:

    Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The Role of the Fed in Financial Crises:


    Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.