Monetary Policy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 30th, 2012

Economics 101

Monetary Policy created the Housing Bubble and the Subprime Mortgage Crisis

Those suffering in the fallout of the Subprime Mortgage Crisis can thank monetary policy.  That tool used by the federal government that kept interest rates so low for so long.  Following the old Milton Friedman idea of a permanent level of inflation (but small and manageable) to stimulate constant economic growth.  Why?  Because when people are buying houses the economy is booming.  Because it takes a lot of economic activity to build them.  And even more to furnish them.  Which means jobs.  Lots and lots of jobs.

But there is a danger in making money too cheap to borrow.  A lot of people will borrow that cheap money.  Creating an artificial demand for ever more housing.  And not for your parent’s house.  But bigger and bigger houses.  The McMansions.  Houses 2-3 times the size of your parent’s house.  This demand ran up the price of these houses.  Which didn’t deter buyers.  Because mortgage rates were so low.  People who weren’t even considering buying a new house, let alone a McMansion, jumped in, too.  When the jumping was good.  To take advantage of those low mortgage rates.  There was so much house buying that builders got into it, too.  House flippers.  Who took advantage of those cheap ‘no questions asked’ (no documentation) mortgages (i.e., subprime) and bought houses.  Fixed them up.  And put them back on the market.

Good times indeed.  But they couldn’t last.  Because those houses weren’t the only thing getting expensive.  Price inflation was creeping into the other things we bought.  And all those houses at such inflated prices were creating a dangerous housing bubble.  So the Federal Reserve, America’s central bank, tapped the brakes.  To cool the economy down.  To reduce the growing inflation.  By raising interest rates.  Making mortgages not cheap anymore.  So people stopped buying houses.  Leaving a glut of unsold houses on the market.  Bursting that housing bubble.  And it got worse.  The higher interest rate increased the monthly payment on adjustable rate mortgages.  A large amount of all those subprime mortgages.  Causing many people to default on these mortgages.  Which caused the Subprime Mortgage Crisis.  And the Great Recession.

The Federal Reserve System conducts Monetary Policy by Changing both the Money Supply and Interest Rates

Money is a commodity.  And subject to the laws of supply and demand.  When money is in high demand (during times of inflation) the ‘price’ of money goes up.  When money is in low demand (during times of recession) the ‘price’ of money goes down.  The ‘price’ of money is interest.  The cost of borrowing money.  The higher the demand for loans the higher the interest rate.  The less the demand for loans the lower the interest rate.

So there is a relationship between money and interest rates.  Adjusting one can affect the other.  If the money supply is increased the interest rates will decrease.  Because there is more money to loan to the same amount of borrowers.  When the money supply is decreased interest rates will increase.  Because there will be less money to loan to the same amount of borrowers.  And it works the other way.  If the interest rates are lowered people respond by borrowing more money.  Increasing the amount of money in the economy buying things.  If interest rates are raised people respond by borrowing less money.   Reducing the amount of money in the economy buying things.  We call these changes in the money supply and interest rates monetary policy.  Made by the monetary authority.  In most cases the central bank of a nation.  In the United States that central bank is the Federal Reserve System (the Fed).

The Fed changes the amount of money in the economy and the interest rates to minimize the length of recessions, combat inflation and to reduce unemployment.  At least in theory.  And they have a variety of tools at their disposal.  They can change the amount of money in the economy through open market operations.  Basically buying (increasing the money supply) or selling (decreasing the money supply) treasury bills, government bonds, company bonds, foreign currencies, etc., on the open market.  They can also buy and sell these financial instruments to change interest rates.  Such as the Federal funds rate.  The interest rate banks pay when borrowing from each other.  Moving money between their accounts at the central bank.  Or the Fed can change the discount rate.  The rate banks pay to borrow from the central bank itself.  Often called the lender of last resort.  Or they can change the reserve requirement in fractional reserve banking.  Lowering it allows banks to loan more of their deposits.  Raising it requires banks to hold more of their deposits in reserve.  Not used much these days.  Open market operations being the monetary tool of choice.

There is more to Economic Activity than Monetary Policy

Fractional reserve banking multiplies these transactions.  Where banks create money out of thin air.  When the Fed increases the money supply a little this creates a lot of lendable funds.  As buyers borrow money from some banks and pay sellers.  Then sellers deposit that money in other banks.  And these banks hold a little of these deposits in reserve.  And loan the rest.  Borrowers create depositors as buyers meet sellers.  And complete economic transactions.  When the Fed reduces the money supply a little this process works in reverse.  Fractional reserve banking pulls a lot of money out of the economy.  Some treat these economic transactions, and the way to increase or decrease them, as simple math.  Always obeying their mathematical formulas.  We call these people Keynesian economists.  Named for the economist John Maynard Keynes.

Big interventionist governments embrace monetary policy.  Because they think they can easily manipulate the economy as they wish.  So they can tax and spend (Keynesian fiscal policy).  And when economic activity declines they can simply use monetary policy to restore it.  But there is one problem.  It doesn’t work.  If it did there would not have been a Subprime Mortgage Crisis.  Or any of the recessions we’ve had since the advent of central banking.  Including the Great Depression.  As well as the Great Recession.

There is more to economic activity than monetary policy.  Such as punishing fiscal policy (high taxes and stifling regulations).  Technological innovation.  Contracts.  Property rights.  Etc.  Any one of these can influence risk takers.  Business owners.  Entrepreneurs.  The job creators.  The people who create economic activity.  And no amount of monetary policy will change this.

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