Behind his white beard, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke has a wry sense of humour. On reading his recent speech to the American Economic Association, in which he defended the Fed’s actions during the housing bubble, I initially suspected it was a practical joke. Rather than conceding that he and his predecessor, Alan Greenspan, made a hash of things between 2002 and 2006, keeping interest rates too low for too long, he said the Fed’s policies were reasonable and the main cause of the rise in house prices was not cheap money but lax supervision.
Searching in vain for a punch line, I was reminded of Talleyrand’s quip about the restored Bourbon monarchs: “They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” Mr Bernanke is far smarter than Louis XVIII and Charles X, two notorious boneheads, and has done a good job of firefighting. But his unwillingness to admit the Fed’s role in inflating the housing and broader credit bubble raises serious questions about his judgment.
The individual elements of his presentation were questionable enough... but most disturbing was its failure to address the larger picture: from the mid-1990s, the Fed adopted a stance that encouraged irresponsible risk-taking. In periods of growth, it raised interest rates slowly, if at all, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the course of asset prices. But when a recession or financial blow-up beckoned, it slashed rates and acted as a lender of last resort.
On Wall Street, this asymmetric approach came to be known as “the Greenspan put”. It gave financial institutions the confidence to raise their speculative bets, using borrowed cash to do it. None of the Fed’s actions since then have addressed this central issue of moral hazard. Indeed, the problem may have become worse. For all the damage that the financial industry has inflicted on itself, when disaster arrived the Greenspan/Bernanke put did pay off. By slashing the funds rate and providing emergency credit facilities to stricken financial firms, the Fed further entrenched the perception that its ultimate role is to provide a safety net for Wall Street.
Unlike his predecessor, Mr Bernanke recognises the problem of excessive speculation and the massive externalities its sudden reversal can impose. In that sense, intellectual progress has been made. But he and his deputy, Donald Kohn, still refuse to acknowledge the Fed’s role in motivating reckless behaviour...
This is not entirely true, at least for Donald Kohn. In a November 2007 speech Kohn hints at this possibility via a comment on the Fed's role in creating the Great Moderation:
In a broader sense, perhaps the underlying cause of the current crisis was complacency. With the onset of the “Great Moderation” back in the mid-1980s, households and firms in the United States and elsewhere have enjoyed a long period of reduced output volatility and low and stable inflation. These calm conditions may have led many private agents to become less prudent and to underestimate the risks associated with their actions.While we cannot be sure about the ultimate sources of the moderation, many observers believe better monetary policy here and abroad was one factor; if so, central banks may have accidentally contributed to the current crisis.