From the Financial Post:
While there isn’t perfect unanimity on this, it is widely acknowledged that a significant part, if not the root, of our difficulties originated with the low-interest-rate policy implemented by the Alan Greenspan-led Fed in 2001-2005. This generated a housing boom, which was further stoked by the financial engineering of Wall Street in securitizing mortgages, by obliging bond rating agencies in evaluating these securities and by portfolio managers eagerly willing to buy them, hungry for extra returns in a low interest rate environment.
To the extent that this assessment has been made, it represents an important victory for a school of thought that has long hung on the margins of the economics discipline: the Austrian school of economics, whose most illustrious figures include the Nobel prize winning Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. Austrian economists hold that downturns are the inevitable aftermath of loose monetary policy, thus opposing explanations typically heard prior to the current crisis that attributed recessions to price shocks, underconsumption or central bank tightening of monetary policy.
But if, to rephrase a well-known Nixon quote, we are all Austrians now, it illogically only extends to the diagnosis of the crisis and not to the school’s market-based cure. For it is just not consistent to simultaneously assign blame to Greenspan’s easy money and then support government intervention to fix the damage, as so many of the business op-ed writers and talking heads on CNBC have.
As the Austrian tradition points out, the dilemma with easy money is that the central bank sets rates below that which the market would naturally set. The natural rate reflects people’s willingness to trade present for future satisfactions. When the actual rate is established under this, entrepreneurs and firms are issued a false signal that people are willing to defer more consumption into the future than they really are. As a result, excess investments in capital goods industries, such as housing, are made on the expectation that these will pay off in the long-run. The boom ends when monetary conditions are tightened back to natural levels or the passage of time makes clear that the demand was never really there to sustain the investments made. At this point, a crisis takes place in which capital investments get liquidated and resources are shifted such that the economy’s productive capacity more appropriately reflects people’s time preferences.