Some think the worst is behind us, and that output and employment will slowly but steadily increase during the next few years. Others believe we are headed for another crash. The lessons from the last business cycle favor the case for pessimism.
It has been said that if one laid all the world’s economists end to end, they wouldn’t reach a conclusion. Even so, a surprisingly large number of economists now agree that then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan made a tragic mistake. After the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, Greenspan opened the monetary floodgates.
Specifically, Greenspan allowed the “monetary base” to increase 22% from June 2000 through June 2003. The monetary base, also called “high-powered money,” is the base upon which bank loans are pyramided, expanding the total amount of money held by the public. During the same three-year period, Greenspan cut the federal funds rate — the interest rate commercial banks charge each other for overnight loans — from 6.5% down to 1%, the lowest federal funds rate in more than 40 years.
The rationale for Greenspan’s easy-credit policy was to provide a “soft landing” for the economy in the wake of the dot-com crash and Sept. 11 attacks. And for a while, it seemed he had succeeded. People marveled that housing prices continued to rise, even amidst the recession of 2001. Indeed, people referred to Greenspan as “the Maestro.” In retrospect, economists across the political spectrum recognize the role Greenspan’s Fed played in fueling the housing bubble. The more cynical analysts argue that Greenspan’s policies weren’t “easy” at all and merely postponed the inevitable day of reckoning for the economy. Rather than gritting its teeth and suffering through the necessary adjustments in the early 2000s, the nation got an injection of artificial credit that masked the underlying problems with a euphoric boom.
The housing market eventually collapsed, as all bubbles do. At this point, Ben Bernanke was at the helm of the Fed. Unfortunately, he got his policies out of Greenspan’s playbook, except Bernanke doubled down. Rather than pushing short-term interest rates down to 1% as Greenspan did, Bernanke has pushed them down to almost zero percent. And in contrast to Greenspan’s 22% increase in the monetary base during a three-year period, Bernanke increased it by 94% in one year.
The unprecedented monetary stimulus from the Fed, in conjunction with the massive deficits of the federal government, did succeed in partially re-inflating the stock market and stabilizing home prices. Time magazine named Bernanke its 2009 Person of the Year, and Obama administration officials are taking credit for nipping the Great Recession in the bud. Yet the parallels with the Greenspan episode are clear. It makes no sense to “rescue” the economy by having politicians borrow and spend trillions of dollars. It also makes no sense to fix the horrible mistakes of the housing-bubble years by having the Fed create electronic money out of thin air to buy “toxic assets” from investment banks that would otherwise be insolvent.
The alleged economic recovery is unfortunately just as illusory as the prosperity of the housing-bubble years. It is disturbing to consider that if this is the calm before the storm, then the pending crash will be painful indeed. In the current debate on the direction of the economy, those predicting a “double dip” have the stronger — if more depressing — case.