Students and friends have been asking me about the current debates concerning monetary policy. I’m certainly no expert on the topic, which means doing a bit of additional reading. And here’s what I’ve come up with.
Walter Bagehot is the name to drop in these discussions (to judge by Ben Bernanke’s talk at the Fourteenth Jacques Polak Annual Research Conference and Brad DeLong frequent references, such as here). So, I went back and read the entirety of Lombard Street: A Description of the Money Market and, in all honesty, I didn’t come away with anything more than what I first learned in Charles Kindleberger’s Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises [pdf]. To wit, when financial crises occur, there needs to be a lender of last resort, which means some kind of central bank that lends freely, without any kind of ex ante limit, no playing of favorites, and at some penalty to borrowers.
And that’s exactly what happened in the United States after the crash of 2008. Except that it did play favorites, favoring financial institutions (in the United States and around the world) that did gain access to additional capital, whenever and wherever they needed it—but not offering any kind of bailout to homeowners, who were the victims of predatory lending in the first place.
Not surprisingly, a large part of the discussion has been about the consequences of that monetary policy—of, first, price easing (forcing interest rates down to the zero lower bound), and then, quantitative easing (large-scale purchases of long-term government bonds and other securities). Mark Thoma provides the traditional interpretation of how that Fed policy works (or at least is supposed to work). Andrew Huszar, who actually managed the Fed’s quantitative-easing program during 2009-10, questions the wisdom of that program, which in his view has helped Wall Street but little else.
Even by the Fed’s sunniest calculations, aggressive QE over five years has generated only a few percentage points of U.S. growth. By contrast, experts outside the Fed, such as Mohammed El Erian at the Pimco investment firm, suggest that the Fed may have created and spent over $4 trillion for a total return of as little as 0.25% of GDP (i.e., a mere $40 billion bump in U.S. economic output). Both of those estimates indicate that QE isn’t really working.
Unless you’re Wall Street. Having racked up hundreds of billions of dollars in opaque Fed subsidies, U.S. banks have seen their collective stock price triple since March 2009. The biggest ones have only become more of a cartel: 0.2% of them now control more than 70% of the U.S. bank assets.
The McKinsey Global Institute has conducted the first large-scale analysis of the distributional consequences of Fed policy after the crisis. Their conclusion? The entities that have gained from lower interest-rates are central governments (because borrowing costs have been much lower), non-financial corporations (as a result of lower debt-service costs), and banks (at least in the United States, since they’ve been able to take advantage of the spread between borrowing costs and lending rates as well as the fees generated by securitizing the loans they’ve made).
The last piece of the financial puzzle is the one we (or at least I) have tended to understand the least: the shadow banking system. In 2010 (revised in 2012), the New York Fed [pdf] prepared a useful report in which they documented the institutional features of shadow banks, discussed their economic roles, and analyzed their relation to the traditional banking system. It includes a reminder of how important that part of the financial architecture of contemporary capitalism shadow banking has been and continues to be: by June 2007, on the eve of the crash, shadow bank liabilities had grown to nearly $22 trillion, in comparison to traditional banking liabilities of $14 trillion. And while the shadow banking system has contracted substantially since then, there are indications it’s on the rise again.
Which, ironically, takes us back to Bagehot.
While on the surface of it the modern banking system looks quite different from the one that prevailed in mid-nineteenth century England, Perry Mehrling et al. [pdf] beg to differ:
At its core, modern shadow banking is nothing but a bill funding market, not so different from Bagehot’s. The crucial difference between his world and ours is the fact that Bagehot’s world was organized as a network of promises to pay in the event that someone else doesn’t pay, whereas our own world is organized as a network of promises to buy in the event that someone else doesn’t buy. Put another way, Bagehot’s world was centrally about funding liquidity, whereas our world is centrally about market liquidity.
In consequence, Bagehot’s “lender of last resort” has had to become a “dealer of last resort,” which involves (as we have seen) a commitment to purchase some set of well-defined prime securities and, with it, the willingness to accept as collateral a significantly larger set of securities in order to put a floor on their price in times of crisis.
What we’re left with then is a Fed that is quite capable of stemming a financial panic, once it begins to happen, but is no more capable than in Bagehot’s time of actually preventing the recurring manias, panics, and crashes that characterize a capitalist economy.