Archive for the 'Martin Wolf' Category

Martin Wolf Reviews Adam Tooze on the 2008 Financial Crisis

The eminent Martin Wolf, a fine economist and the foremost financial journalist of his generation, has written an admiring review of a new book (Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World) about the financial crisis of 2008 and the ensuing decade of aftershocks and turmoil and upheaval by the distinguished historian Adam Tooze. This is not the first time I have written a post commenting on a review of a book by Tooze; in 2015, I wrote a post about David Frum’s review of Tooze’s book on World War I and its aftermath (Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the World Order 1916-1931). No need to dwell on the obvious similarities between these two impressive volumes.

Let me admit at the outset that I haven’t read either book. Unquestionably my loss, but I hope at some point to redeem myself by reading both of them. But in this post I don’t intend to comment at length about Tooze’s argument. Judging from Martin Wolf’s review, I fully expect that I will agree with most of what Tooze has to say about the crisis.

My criticism – and I hesitate even to use that word – will be directed toward what, judging from Wolf’s review, Tooze seems to have been left out of his book. I am referring to the role of tight monetary policy, motivated by an excessive concern with inflation, when what was causing inflation was a persistent rise in energy and commodity prices that had little to do with monetary policy. Certainly, the failure to fully understand the role of monetary policy during the 2006 to 2008 period in the run-up to the financial crisis doesn’t negate all the excellent qualities that the book undoubtedly has, nevertheless, leaving out that essential part of the story that is like watching Hamlet without the prince.

Let me just offer a few examples from Wolf’s review. Early in the review, Wolf provides a clear overview of the nature of the crisis, its scope and the response.

As Tooze explains, the book examines “the struggle to contain the crisis in three interlocking zones of deep private financial integration: the transatlantic dollar-based financial system, the eurozone and the post-Soviet sphere of eastern Europe”. This implosion “entangled both public and private finances in a doom loop”. The failures of banks forced “scandalous government intervention to rescue private oligopolists”. The Federal Reserve even acted to provide liquidity to banks in other countries.

Such a huge crisis, Tooze points out, has inevitably deeply affected international affairs: relations between Germany and Greece, the UK and the eurozone, the US and the EU and the west and Russia were all affected. In all, he adds, the challenges were “mind-bogglingly technical and complex. They were vast in scale. They were fast moving. Between 2007 and 2012, the pressure was relentless.”

Tooze concludes this description of events with the judgment that “In its own terms, . . . the response patched together by the US Treasury and the Fed was remarkably successful.” Yet the success of these technocrats, first with support from the Democratic Congress at the end of the administration of George W Bush, and then under a Democratic president, brought the Democrats no political benefits.

This is all very insightful and I have no quarrel with any of it. But it mentions not a word about the role of monetary policy. Last month I wrote a post about the implications of a flat or inverted yield curve. The yield curve usually has an upward slope because short-term rates interest rates tend to be lower than long-term rates. Over the past year the yield curve has been steadily flattening as short term rates have been increasing while long-term rates have risen only slightly if at all. Many analysts are voicing concern that the yield curve may go flat or become inverted once again. And one reason that they worry is that the last time the yield curve became flat was late in 2006. Here’s how I described what happened to the yield curve in 2006 after the Fed started mechanically raising its Fed-funds target interest rate by 25 basis points every 6 weeks starting in June 2004.

The Fed having put itself on autopilot, the yield curve became flat or even slightly inverted in early 2006, implying that a substantial liquidity premium had to be absorbed in order to keep cash on hand to meet debt obligations. By the second quarter of 2006, insufficient liquidity caused the growth in total spending to slow, just when housing prices were peaking, a development that intensified the stresses on the financial system, further increasing the demand for liquidity. Despite the high liquidity premium and flat yield curve, total spending continued to increase modestly through 2006 and most of 2007. But after stock prices dropped in August 2007 and home prices continued to slide, growth in total spending slowed further at the end of 2007, and the downturn began.

Despite the weakening economy, the Fed remained focused primarily on inflation. The Fed did begin cutting its Fed Funds target from 5.25% in late 2007 once the downturn began, but the Fed’s reluctance to move aggressively to counter a recession that worsened rapidly in spring and summer of 2008 because the Fed remain fixated on headline inflation which was consistently higher than the Fed’s 2% target. But inflation was staying above the 2% target simply because of an ongoing supply shock that began in early 2006 when the price of oil was just over $50 a barrel and rose steadily with a short dip late in 2006 and early 2007 and continuing to rise above $100 a barrel in the summer of 2007 and peaking at over $140 a barrel in July 2008.

The mistake of tightening monetary policy in response to a supply shock in the midst of a recession would have been egregious under any circumstances, but in the context of a seriously weakened and fragile financial system, the mistake was simply calamitous. And, indeed, the calamitous consequences of that decision are plain. But somehow the connection between the focus of the Fed on inflation while the economy was contracting and the financial system was in peril has never been fully recognized by most observers and certainly not by the Federal Reserve officials who made those decisions. A few paragraphs later, Wolf observes.

Furthermore, because the banking systems had become so huge and intertwined, this became, in the words of Ben Bernanke — Fed chairman throughout the worst days of the crisis and a noted academic expert — the “worst financial crisis in global history, including the Great Depression”. The fact that the people who had been running the system had so little notion of these risks inevitably destroyed their claim to competence and, for some, even probity.

I will not agree or disagree with Bernanke that the 2008 crisis was the worse than 1929-30 or 1931 or 1933 crises, but it appears that they still have not fully understood their own role in precipitating the crisis. That is a story that remains to be told. I hope we don’t have to wait too much longer.

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About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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