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The Danger of an All-Powerful Federal Reserve

August 27, 2013 in Economics

By John H. Cochrane

John H. Cochrane

Interest rates make the headlines, but the Federal Reserve’s most important role is going to be the gargantuan systemic financial regulator. The really big question is whether and how the Fed will pursue a “macroprudential” policy. This is the emerging notion that central banks should intensively monitor the whole financial system and actively intervene in a broad range of markets toward a wide range of goals including financial and economic stability.

For example, the Fed is urged to spot developing “bubbles,” “speculative excesses” and “overheated” markets, and then stop them—as Fed Governor Sarah Bloom Raskin explained in a speech last month, by “restraining financial institutions from excessively extending credit.” How? “Some of the significant regulatory tools for addressing asset bubbles—both those in widespread use and those on the frontier of regulatory thought—are capital regulation, liquidity regulation, regulation of margins and haircuts in securities funding transactions, and restrictions on credit underwriting.”

This is not traditional regulation—stable, predictable rules that financial institutions live by to reduce the chance and severity of financial crises. It is active, discretionary micromanagement of the whole financial system. A firm’s managers may follow all the rules but still be told how to conduct their business, whenever the Fed thinks the firm’s customers are contributing to booms or busts the Fed disapproves of.

Macroprudential policy explicitly mixes the Fed’s macroeconomic and financial stability roles. Interest-rate policy will be used to manipulate a broad array of asset prices, and financial regulation will be used to stimulate or cool the economy.

Foreign central banks are at it already, and a growing consensus among international policy types has left the Fed’s relatively muted discussions behind. The sweeping agenda laid out in “Macroprudential Policy: An Organizing Framework,” a March 2011 International Monetary Fund paper, is a case in point.

“The monitoring of systemic risks by macroprudential policy should be comprehensive,” the IMF paper explains. “It should cover all potential sources of such risk no matter where they reside.” Chillingly, policy “should be able to encompass all important providers of credit, liquidity, and maturity transformation regardless of their legal form, as well as individual systemically important institutions and financial market infrastructures.”

What could possibly go wrong?

It’s easy enough to point out that central banks don’t have a great track record of diagnosing what they later considered “bubbles” and “systemic” risks. The Fed didn’t act on the tech bubble of the 1990s or the real-estate bubble of the …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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