An intriguing, if unpopular, thought
THE late Rudi Dornbusch, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, once remarked: "None of the post-war expansions died of old age. They were all murdered by the Fed." Every recession since 1945, with the exception of the one in 2001, was preceded by a sharp rise in inflation that forced the central bank to raise interest rates. But today's Federal Reserve is no serial killer. It seems keener on blood transfusions than on bloodletting.
When the Fed cut its discount rate on August 17th, it admitted for the first time that the credit crunch could hurt the economy. The markets are betting it will soon cut its main federal funds rate. Economists are arguing vigorously about how much damage falling house prices and the subprime mortgage crisis will do. But there is one question that is rarely asked: even if a downturn is in the offing, should the Fed try to prevent it?
Most people think the question smacks of madness. According to received wisdom, the Fed should not cut interest rates to bail out lenders and investors, because this creates moral hazard and encourages greater risk-taking; but if financial troubles harm spending and jobs the Fed should immediately ease policy so long as inflation remains modest. Central bankers should be guided by the "
But should a central bank always try to avoid recessions? Some economists argue that this could create a much wider form of moral hazard. If long periods of uninterrupted expansions lead people to believe that the Fed can prevent any future recession, consumers, firms, investors and borrowers will be encouraged to take bigger risks, borrowing more and saving less. During the past quarter century the American economy has been in recession for only 5% of the time, compared with 22% of the previous 25 years. Partly this is due to welcome structural changes that have made the economy more stable. But what if it is due to repeated injections of adrenaline every time the economy slows?
Many hope that the Fed will now repeat the trick. Slashing interest rates would help to prop up house prices and encourage households to keep borrowing and spending. But after such a long binge, might the economy not benefit from a cold shower? Contrary to popular wisdom, it is not a central bank's job to prevent recession at any cost. Its task is to keep inflation down (helping smooth out the economic cycle), to protect the financial system, and to prevent a recession turning into a deep slump.
The economic and social costs of recession are painful: unemployment, lower wages and profits, and bankruptcy. These cannot be dismissed lightly. But there are also some purported benefits. Some economists believe that recessions are a necessary feature of economic growth. Joseph Schumpeter argued that recessions are a process of creative destruction in which inefficient firms are weeded out. Only by allowing the "winds of creative destruction" to blow freely could capital be released from dying firms to new industries. Some evidence from cross-country studies suggests that economies with higher output volatility tend to have slightly faster productivity growth.
Another "benefit" of a recession is that it purges the excesses of the previous boom, leaving the economy in a healthier state. The Fed's massive easing after the dotcom bubble burst delayed this cleansing process and simply replaced one bubble with another, leaving
This does not mean that the Fed should follow the advice of Andrew Mellon, the treasury secretary, after the 1929 crash: "liquidate labour, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, and liquidate real estate...It will purge the rottenness out of the system."
Of course, even if a recession were in