The classic explanation of financial crises is that they are caused by excesses -- frequently monetary excesses -- which lead to a boom and an inevitable bust. This crisis was no different: A housing boom followed by a bust led to defaults, the implosion of mortgages and mortgage-related securities at financial institutions, and resulting financial turmoil.
Monetary excesses were the main cause of the boom. The Fed held its target interest rate, especially in 2003-2005, well below known monetary guidelines that say what good policy should be based on historical experience. Keeping interest rates on the track that worked well in the past two decades, rather than keeping rates so low, would have prevented the boom and the bust. Researchers at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have provided corroborating evidence from other countries: The greater the degree of monetary excess in a country, the larger was the housing boom...
If liquidity was the problem, then providing more liquidity by making borrowing easier at the Federal Reserve discount window, or opening new windows or facilities, would be appropriate.
But if counterparty risk was behind the sudden rise in money-market interest rates, then a direct focus on the quality and transparency of the bank's balance sheets would be appropriate.
Early on, policy makers misdiagnosed the crisis as one of liquidity, and prescribed the wrong treatment.
To provide more liquidity, the Fed created the Term Auction Facility (TAF) in December 2007. Its main aim was to reduce interest rate spreads in the money markets and increase the flow of credit. But the TAF did not seem to make much difference. If the reason for the spread was counterparty risk as distinct from liquidity, this is not surprising...
It did not have to be this way. To prevent misguided actions in the future, it is urgent that we return to sound principles of monetary policy, basing government interventions on clearly stated diagnoses and predictable frameworks for government actions.
Massive responses with little explanation will probably make things worse. That is the lesson from this crisis so far.
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