What's a Central Bank to Do?
Policy Response to the Current Crisis
As homeowner equity continues to disappear, there is a growing consensus that losses on all mortgages will exceed $1 trillion, with financial losses spreading far beyond real estate. Mortgage rates are spiking and, more generally, interest rate spreads remain wide, as financial players shun private debt in the rush to safe Treasury securities. Labor markets continue to weaken as firms shed jobs, and state tax revenues have plummeted. In March, the dollar fell to new record lows against the euro and other currencies. Commodities prices have boomed, fueling inflation and adding to consumer distress.
What's a central bank to do? So far, the Federal Reserve has met or exceeded the market’s anticipations for rate cuts. It has allowed banks to offer securitized mortgages as collateral against borrowed reserves, and opened its discount window to a broad range of financial institutions to guard against future liquidity problems (remember Bear Stearns?). It helped to formulate a rescue plan for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, and Chairman Ben Bernanke even supported the fiscal stimulus package that will increase the federal budget deficit—something that is normally anathema to central bankers. Most importantly, Fed officials have consistently argued that, while they are carefully monitoring inflation pressures, they will not reverse monetary easing until the fallout from the subprime crisis is past.
Unfortunately, the policy isn’t working—the economy continues to weaken, the financial crisis is spreading, and inflation is accelerating. The problem is that policymakers do not recognize the underlying forces driving the crisis, in part because they operate with an incorrect model of how our economy works. This Policy Note summarizes that model, offers an alternative view based on Hyman Minsky’s approach, and outlines an alternative framework for policy formation.