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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Are We Entering the Third Mode?

Remember Brad DeLong's cure for the third mode?:

The third mode is like the second: A bursting bubble or bad news about future productivity or interest rates drives the fall in asset prices. But the fall is larger. Easing monetary policy won't solve this kind of crisis, because even moderately lower interest rates cannot boost asset prices enough to restore the financial system to solvency.

When this happens, governments have two options. First, they can simply nationalize the broken financial system and have the Treasury sort things out -- and reprivatize the functioning and solvent parts as rapidly as possible. Government is not the best form of organization of a financial system... It is merely the best organization available.

The second option is simply inflation. Yes, the financial system is insolvent, but it has nominal liabilities and either it or its borrowers have some real assets. Print enough money and boost the price level enough, and the insolvency problem goes away without the risks entailed by putting the government in the investment and commercial banking business.

The inflation may be severe, implying massive unjust redistributions and at least a temporary grave degradation in the price system's capacity to guide resource allocation. But even this is almost surely better than a depression. ...

At the start, the Fed assumed that it was facing a first-mode crisis -- a mere liquidity crisis -- and that the principal cure would be to ensure the liquidity of fundamentally solvent institutions.

But the Fed has shifted over the past two months toward policies aimed at a second-mode crisis -- more significant monetary loosening, despite the risks of higher inflation, extra moral hazard and unjust redistribution.

As Fed Vice Chair Don Kohn recently put it: "We should not hold the economy hostage to teach a small segment of the population a lesson."

No policymakers are yet considering the possibility that the financial crisis might turn out to be in the third mode.

John Makin says it's time:

The Inflation Solution to the Housing Mess, by John H. Makin, Commentary, WSJ: The policy alternatives in the post-housing-bubble world are painfully unpleasant. In my view, the least bad option is for the Federal Reserve to print money to help stabilize housing prices and financial markets. Yes, use reflation to soften the pain for Main Street and Wall Street. If instead we let housing prices fall another 25%-30% – as predicted by the Case-Shiller Home Price Index – it's almost certain that Washington will end up nationalizing the mortgage business.

So far, the Fed's lending programs have not provided adequate liquidity to financial markets...

Congress and the Treasury have proposed voluntary measures to help mortgage borrowers, but the impact on mortgage availability has been nil. ... Overall access to credit is contracting...

Meanwhile, the collapse of house prices and the attendant damage to credit markets have become so severe that the Fed has been forced to create new policy measures at a fast clip, including the radical decision to take $30 billion worth of Bear Stearns' risky mortgages onto its own balance sheet, and to open the discount window to investment banks.

The bottom line is this: The Fed could have watched a run on investment banks quickly turn into a run on commercial banks, or protected the creditors of investment banks (like the depositors of commercial banks) at the expense of Bear Stearns' shareholders. The Fed wisely chose the second alternative.

Still, the Fed's intervention has done no more than buy a respite from the crisis... The monetary easing I'm recommending can occur by having the Fed print money to purchase mortgages directly, or purchase Treasury securities directly. The latter is probably more desirable because it adds higher-quality assets to the Fed's balance sheet. ...

Fed reflation – to slow the fall in home prices and alleviate the distress for households and lenders – carries many risks. But the alternative is to struggle with a patchwork of inadequate efforts to shore up mortgage markets, while the Fed sticks to its current tactic of pegging the fed funds rate without increasing the money supply. This, I would submit, is even more risky. It risks a severe recession that will only intensify the drive for reregulation of financial and mortgage markets after the election. ...

While there is no guarantee, direct injection of money holds some promise of alleviating the worst of the credit crisis. This means that, after the election, Congress will not feel justified in nationalizing mortgage markets.

While there is a substantial risk that inflation may rise for a time – this would be the policy goal – monetization is more easily reversible than nationalization of the mortgage market. ...

I don't think we are there yet.

    Posted by on Sunday, April 13, 2008 at 08:19 PM in Economics, Inflation, Monetary Policy | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (23)

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