December 17, 2008
Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and his predecessor Alan Greenspan have unleashed a series of ever-larger asset bubbles they cannot control.
Now the Fed’s decision to cut interest rates to between zero and 0.25 percent, coupled with a promise to keep them there for an extended period, and the threat to conduct even more unconventional operations in the longer-dated Treasury market risks the biggest bubble of all, this time in U.S. government debt.
THE ASYMMETRIC EXPERIMENT
Bubble mania is no accident. It is the direct consequence of the Fed’s asymmetric response to shifts in asset prices. Pressed to “lean against the wind” and adopt counter-cyclical interest rate and credit policies in the asset market, senior Fed policymakers have repeatedly demurred.
Led by Bernanke and Greenspan, officials have argued it is too hard and subjective to identify bubbles until afterwards, and not the Fed’s job to second-guess asset allocation decisions of professional investors.
Even if bubbles could be identified, they argue, pricking them would require swingeing rate rises that would inflict widespread damage on the rest of the economy.