Friday, March 27, 2009

The Blame Game

Very interesting piece in this morning's Wall Street Journal. Basically, it is a discussion on whether the Federal Reserve, under Alan Greenspan, was a primary cause of the housing bubble starting in 2002. I am a firm believer that when managing finances, it is essential to understand monetary policy and the broader topic of monetary economics.

In all, there are six short-pieces by six "economists" (I admit I had only previously heard of one of these gentlemen). Of course, there is no real agreement between any of the six, which adds credence to my point that the economy is incredibly complex and it is impossible to blame one single policy decision for such a broad and unexpected outcome.

I agree more with Mr. Henderson's argument that Greenspan's policies were not a primary cause of the housing bubble. That bubble started in the mid-nineties for many different reasons and eventually became such a monster due to the interactions of even more unrelated events. Mr. Henderson argues that the entrance of Chinese savers and rich oil states into the global monetary system had a much greater effect on increasing global money supply than any actions by Mr. Greenspan. I have been using this argument for many years.

However, I don't agree with Mr. Henderson that we should abolish the Fed. In a perfect world, I would be more likely to agree with him. Alas, we definitely don't live in a perfect world.

Some of the arguments which blame Greenspan's policies include: that the Fed abandoned "sound money", that the Fed's actions artificially lowered adjustable mortgage rates, and, of course, the old "they were just following the rules, so change the rules" argument ( I find this one amusing because all laws relating to actions by the Federal Open Market Committee are murky at best).

This very notion that cause and effect are so hard to determine when looking backwards, when we have "all of the facts", is why we believe that trying to predict the economic future is not likely to work. Whenever you hear "economic forecast" or "market timing", remember that someone is essentially trying to predict the future.