No, the Free Market Did Not Cause the Financial Crisis

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In March 2007 then-Treasury secretary Henry Paulson told Americans that the global economy was “as strong as I’ve seen it in my business career.” “Our financial institutions are strong,” he added in March 2008. “Our investment banks are strong. Our banks are strong. They’re going to be strong for many, many years.” Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke said in May 2007, “We do not expect significant spillovers from the subprime market to the rest of the economy or to the financial system.” In August 2008, Paulson and Bernanke assured the country that other than perhaps $25 billion in bailout money for Fannie and Freddie, the fundamentals of the economy were sound.

Then, all of a sudden, things were so bad that without a $700 billion congressional appropriation, the whole thing would collapse.

In the wake of this change of heart on the part of our leaders, Americans found themselves bombarded with a predictable and relentless refrain: the free market economy has failed. The alleged remedies were equally predictable: more regulation, more government intervention, more spending, more money creation, and more debt. To add insult to injury, the very people who had been responsible for the policies that created the mess were posing as the wise public servants who would show us the way out. And following a now-familiar pattern, government failure would not only be blamed on anyone and everyone but the government itself, but it would also be used to justify additional grants of government power.

The truth of the matter is that intervention in the market, rather than the market economy itself, was the driving factor behind the bust.

F.A. Hayek won the Nobel Prize for his work showing how the central bank’s intervention into the economy gives rise to the boom-bust cycle, making us feel prosperous until we suffer the inevitable crash. Most Americans know nothing about Hayek’s theory (known as the Austrian theory of the business cycle), and are therefore easy prey for the quacks who blame the market for problems caused by the manipulation of money and credit. The artificial booms the Fed provokes, wrote economist Henry Hazlitt decades ago, must end “in a crisis and a slump, and…worse than the slump itself may be the public delusion that the slump has been caused, not by the previous inflation, but by the inherent defects of ‘capitalism.’”

Although my recently released book, Meltdown explains the process in more detail, an abbreviated version of Austrian business cycle theory might run as follows:

Government-established central banks can artificially lower interest rates by increasing the supply of money (and thus the funds banks have available to lend) through the banking system. This is supposed to stimulate the economy. What it actually does is mislead investors into embarking on an investment boom that the artificially low rates seem to validate but that in fact cannot be sustained under existing economic conditions. Investments that would have correctly been assessed as unprofitable are falsely appraised as profitable, and over time the result is the squandering of countless resources in lines of investment that should never have been begun.

If lower interest rates are the result of increased saving by the public, this increase in saved resources provides the material wherewithal to see the additional investment through to completion. The situation is very different when the lower interest rates result from the Fed’s creation of new money out of thin air. In that case, the lower rates do not reflect an increase in the pool of savings from which investors can draw. Fed tinkering, in other words, does not increase the real stuff in the economy. The additional investment that the lower rates encourage therefore leads the economy down a path that is not sustainable in the long run. Investment decisions are made that quantitatively and qualitatively diverge from what the economy can support. The bust must come, no matter how much new money the central bank creates in a vain attempt to stave off the inevitable day of reckoning.

The recession or depression is the necessary, if unfortunate, correction process by which the malinvestments of the boom period, having at last been brought to light, are finally liquidated. The diversion of resources into unsustainable investments out of conformity with consumer desires and resource availability comes to an end, with businesses failing and investment projects abandoned. Although painful for many people, the recession/depression phase of the cycle is not where the damage is done. The bust is the period in which the economy sloughs off the malinvestments and the capital misallocation, re-establishes the structure of production along sustainable lines, and restores itself to health. The damage is done during the boom phase, the period of false prosperity that precedes the bust. It is then that the artificial lowering of interest rates causes the squandering of capital and the initiation of unsustainable investments. It is then that resources that would genuinely have satisfied consumer demand are diverted into projects that make sense only in light of the temporary and artificial conditions of the boom.

Adding fuel to the fire of the most recent boom was the so-called Greenspan put, the unofficial policy of the Greenspan Fed that promised assistance to private firms in the event of risky investments gone bad. The Financial Times described it as the view that “when markets unravel, count on the Federal Reserve and its chairman Alan Greenspan (eventually) to come to the rescue.” According to economist Antony Mueller, “Since Alan Greenspan took office, financial markets in the U.S. have operated under a quasi-official charter, which says that the central bank will protect its major actors from the risk of bankruptcy. Consequently, the reasoning emerged that when you succeed, you will earn high profits and market share, and if you should fail, the authorities will save you anyway.” The Financial Times reported in 2000, in the wake of the dot-com boom, of an increasing concern that the Greenspan put was injecting into the economy “a destructive tendency toward excessively risky investment supported by hopes that the Fed will help if things go bad.”

When things do go bad, pumping more money into the banking system, thereby lowering interest rates once again, only exacerbates the problem, because it encourages the continued wasteful deployment of capital in unsustainable lines that will eventually have to be abandoned anyway, and it forces healthy, wealth-generating firms to have to go on competing with bubble firms for labor and capital. When interest rates are made artificially low, they encourage the kind of investment that would normally occur only if more saved resources existed to fund them than actually do. Continuing to force interest rates down only perpetuates the allocation of capital into outlets that the economy’s current resource base cannot sustain.

In response to the dot-com and NASDAQ collapses and the modest recession that accompanied them in 2000 and 2001, that Alan Greenspan and the Fed chose to embark on a robust policy of inflation, an approach that culminated in lowering the federal funds rate (the rate at which banks lend to each other) to a mere one percent from June 2003 to June 2004. Already by early 2001 the Fed had begun to ease once again. That year saw no fewer than 11 rate cuts. The unsustainable dot-com boom could not, in the end, be reignited, and thank goodness — the resource misallocations in that sector were unhealthy for the economy. But the Fed’s easy money and refusal to allow the recession of 2000 to take its course led to an even more perilous bubble elsewhere. That was the only recession on record in which housing starts did not decline. Not coincidentally, that was also the moment at which people began to conclude that house prices never fall, that a house is the best investment one can make, and so on. By intervening in the market then, the Fed prevented the market from making a full correction, thereby perpetuating unsustainable investment and consumption decisions. In so doing it merely postponed what it was trying to avoid, and made the crash worse when it finally came.

Fiscal stimulus, meanwhile, merely diverts resources from the productive sector in order to fund money-losing enterprises arbitrarily chosen by government. These artificial expenditures, moreover, interfere with the market’s attempt to sort out genuine demand from bubble demand. “Stimulus” spending can in fact keep firms (construction companies, for example) in business that for the sake of genuine economic health need to be liquidated so their resources can be more sensibly employed in more urgently demanded lines of production.

The claim that “stimulus” spending is necessary to bring “idle resources” back into use also misfires, since it fails to consider why so many entrepreneurs — who have survived as long as they have on the market because of their skill at anticipating consumer demand — should suddenly have become, all at once, such poor forecasters that they’re all saddled with idle resources.

The reason for the idle resources is, obviously, some prior act of miscalculation. And what could have created such systemic miscalculation? Could it be the Fed’s artificially low interest rates, that distort entrepreneurial forecasting and encourage the wrong kind of investments at the wrong time?

Consider a restaurant owner who mistakes the temporary demand for his product deriving from the presence of the Olympics in his city with real, sustainable demand. Suppose he opens a new location to accommodate all this new demand. When the Olympics are over, he’s left with idle resources — labor with nothing to do and empty restaurant space for starters. Should we want to “stimulate” these resources back into activity? Of course not. They shouldn’t have been allocated this way in the first place. We should want the market, guided by the price system, to redeploy them into sensible channels.

The problem, therefore, isn’t that we lack enough “spending” or “demand,” and that we need government to fill in the “missing demand.” The problem is that in the wake of Fed-induced misallocations of resources we wind up with structural imbalances, a mismatch between the capital structure and consumer demand. The recession is the period in which the economy repairs this mismatch by reallocating resources into lines of production that actually correspond to consumer demand. The modern preoccupation with levels of spending instead of patterns of spending obscures the most important aspects of the question.

Had the market been allowed to work before the collapse, there would have been no housing bubble and no crisis in the first place. Had the market been allowed to work when the crisis hit, recovery would have been swift — as it was in 1920—21, when an even worse depression came to a rapid end without any open-market operations by the Fed, and without any fiscal stimulus. (In fact, the federal budget was cut in half from 1920 to 1922.)

What, in short, should we do now? Exactly the opposite of what our so-called experts, who in a sane world would be forever discredited, urge upon us.

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