Thursday, December 13, 2007

Pushing on a String?

. Thursday, December 13, 2007

Keynes argued that the Great Depression persisted in part because of a "liquidity trap" wherein banks are unwilling to lend regardless of the nominal interest rate. In such a world, monetary policy is useless--he equated trying to use a monetary expansion to stimulate lending to trying to move a weighty object by pushing on the end of a string.

One might ask if global credit markets have now entered a period in which monetary policy amounts to pushing on a string. Credit markets are frozen because banks are uncertain about which banks among them hold how much bad debt (non-performing sub-prime mortgages and associated instruments). Because no one wants to lend to banks who hold a lot of this debt, and no one knows who these banks are, no one is willing to lend to any banks. Consequently, credit markets freeze. The underlying problem is an information asymmetry of the kind that for which Joseph Stiglitz won a Nobel Prize (well, not technically a Nobel, but you get the point).

Yesterday's announcement that US and European central banks will cooperate to provide liquidity to credit markets is best interpreted in this context. "The Fed has not only opened its vault doors to the banking industry, they are now trucking it to their place of business," said Scott Anderson, a senior economist at Wells Fargo, in a written report. "If that doesn't get the banks excited about lending again, nothing will...The Fed's action attempts to deal with a difficult problem confronting the world's central banks: Financial institutions globally are so worried about losses from U.S. mortgage securities and other exotic investments that they are hoarding cash, unwilling to lend it to each other except at unusually high premiums."

I don't know whether to be scared or reassured by this latest development. That is, does this unprecedented action mean that the central banks have things well in hand, or does it mean that things are worse than we realize?

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