This morning’s 3Q GDP release was pretty bad, but nothing compares to this:
What Mr. Paulson did not get around to mentioning was the excess of confidence that preceded the shortfall. Under the spell of soaring house prices (and before that, of stock prices), Americans trusted the things they ought to have doubted. But markets are cyclical, and there is always a new day. In compensating fashion, people will eventually doubt the things they ought to have trusted. Investment opportunity follows disillusionment. It's complacency that precedes bear markets.
If the confidence deficit seems so high, it's because the preceding confidence surplus was full to overflowing. People suspended critical judgment. They accepted at face value the pretensions of central bankers and the competence of investment bankers. Not one professional investor in 50, probably, doubted that wads of subprime mortgages could be refashioned into bonds that were just as creditworthy as U.S. Treasurys.
But it wasn't the vigilance of monetary policy that facilitated the construction of the tree house of leverage that is falling down on our heads today. On the contrary: Artificially low interest rates, imposed by the Federal Reserve itself, were one cause of the trouble. America's privileged place in the monetary world was — oddly enough — another. No gold standard checked the emission of new dollar bills during the quarter-century on which the central bankers so pride themselves. And partly because there was no external check on monetary expansion, debt grew much faster than the income with which to service it. Since 1983, debt has expanded by 8.9% a year, GDP by 5.9%. The disparity in growth rates may not look like much, but it generated a powerful result over time. Over the 25 years, total debt — private and public, financial and non-financial — has risen by $45.1 trillion, GDP by only $10.9 trillion. You can almost infer the size of the gulf by the lopsided prosperity of the purveyors of debt. In 1983, banks, brokerage houses and other financial businesses contributed 15.8% to domestic corporate profits. It's double that today.
In investment markets, confidence and coherence tend to restore themselves. The hardy souls who lead the way back derive their confidence not from the Treasury Secretary but from the pages of "Security Analysis," by Benjamin Graham and David L. Dodd, the value investor's bible.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, of all people, should understand this, Ms. Schwartz says. In 2002, Mr. Bernanke, then a Federal Reserve Board governor, said in a speech in honor of Mr. Friedman's 90th birthday, "I would like to say to Milton and Anna: Regarding the Great Depression. You're right, we did it. We're very sorry. But thanks to you, we won't do it again."
"This was [his] claim to be worthy of running the Fed," she says. He was "familiar with history. He knew what had been done." But perhaps this is actually Mr. Bernanke's biggest problem. Today's crisis isn't a replay of the problem in the 1930s, but our central bankers have responded by using the tools they should have used then. They are fighting the last war. The result, she argues, has been failure. "I don't see that they've achieved what they should have been trying to achieve. So my verdict on this present Fed leadership is that they have not really done their job."
Full text here (source: WSJ). Some of her major points:
Much like 1920s, today's housing and credit bubbles were fueled by the Fed's easy monetary policy. Greenspan can't absolve himself from failing to prevent the bubble from forming. The old thinking needs to be revised that there was no way you could really terminate the boom because you'd be doing collateral damage to areas of the economy that you don't want to damage.