David Beckworth pushes back against some posts that have appeared here and elsewhere recently (my view is that low interest rates played a role, as did regulatory failures, but these were not the only causes of the crisis):
What Role Did the Fed Play In the Housing Bubble?, by David Beckworth: I really did not want to revisit this question since I have already covered it here many times before. Folks, however, are talking about it again given its coverage at the Fed's Jackson Hole conference. Mark Thoma, for example, has posted several pieces on it in the past few days. Most of this renewed discussion has taken a less critical view of the Fed's role during the housing boom, specifically the role played by the Fed's low interest rate policy. I feel compelled to rebut this Fed love fest since there are compelling reasons to believe the Fed did play an important role in creating the housing boom. To be clear, I do not see the Fed as the only contributor--far from it--but it does appear to be one of the more important ones. Here is my list of reasons why:
(1) The Fed kept its policy interest rate, the federal funds rate, below the natural or neutral interest rate for an extended period. It is not correct to say the Fed kept interest rates very low and thus monetary policy was very loose. Interest rates can be low because the economy is weak, not just because monetary policy is stimulative. Interest rates only indicate a loosening of monetary policy if they are low relative to the neutral interest rate, the interest rate level consistent with a closed output gap ( i.e. the economy operating at its full potential). There is ample evidence that the Fed during the 2002-2004 period pushed the federal funds rate well below the neutral interest rate level. For example, see Laubach and Williams (2003) or this ECB study (2007). Below is graph that shows the Laubach and Williams natural interest rate minus the real federal funds rate. This spread provides a measure on the stance of monetary policy--the larger it is the looser is monetary policy and vice versa. This figure shows that monetary policy was unusually accommodative during this time. This figure also indicates an important development behind the large gap was that the productivity boom at that time kept the neutral interested elevated even as the Fed held down the real federal funds rate.
(2) Given the excessive monetary easing shown above, the Fed helped create a credit boom that found its way--via financial innovation, lax governance (both private and public), and misaligned incentives--into the housing market. Housing market activity was further reinforced by "the search for yield" created by the Fed's low interest rates. The low interest rates at the time encouraged investors to take on riskier investments than they otherwise would have. Some of those riskier investments end up being tied to housing. Thus, the risk-taking channel of monetary policy added more fuel to the housing boom.
(3) Given the Fed's monetary superpower status, its loose monetary policy got exported across the globe. As a result, the Fed helped create a global liquidity glut that in turn helped fuel a global housing boom. The Fed is a global monetary hegemon. It holds the world's main reserve currency and many emerging markets are formally or informally pegged to dollar. Thus, its monetary policy was exported to much of the emerging world at this time. This means that the other two monetary powers, the ECB and Japan, had to be mindful of U.S. monetary policy lest their currencies becomes too expensive relative to the dollar and all the other currencies pegged to the dollar. As as result, the Fed's loose monetary policy also got exported to some degree to Japan and the Euro area. From this perspective it is easy to understand how the Fed could have created a global liquidity glut in the early-to-mid 2000s. Inevitably, some of this global liquidity glut got recycled back into the U.S. economy and further fueled the housing boom (i.e. the dollar block countries had to buy up more dollars as the Fed loosened policy and these funds got recycled via Treasury purchases back to the U.S. economy). Below is a picture from Sebastian Becker of Deutsche Bank that highlights this surge in global liquidity:
For these reasons I believe the Fed played a major role in the credit and housing boom during the early-to-mid 2000s. Let me close by directing you to Barry Ritholtz who gives more details on how the Fed's policy distorted incentives in financial markets.