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Steve Keen Exclaims "The Fed Has Not Learnt Anything From The Crisis"

Submitted by Steve Keen via Forbes.com,

The Financial Crisis of 2007 was the nearest thing to a “Near Death Experience” that the Federal Reserve could have had. One ordinarily expects someone who has such an experience—exuberance behind the wheel that causes an almost fatal crash, a binge drinking escapade that ends up in the intensive care ward—to learn from it, and change their behaviour in some profound way that makes a repeat event impossible.

Not so the Federal Reserve. Though the event itself gets some mention in Yellen’s speech yesterday (“Normalizing Monetary Policy: Prospects and Perspectives”, San Francisco March 27, 2015), the analysis in that speech shows that the Fed has learnt nothing of substance from the crisis. If anything, the thinking has gone backwards. The Fed is the speed driver who will floor the accelerator before the next bend, just as he did before the crash; it is the binge drinker who will empty the bottle of whiskey at next year’s New Year’s Eve, just as she did before she woke up in intensive care on New Year’s Day.

So why hasn’t The Fed learnt? Largely because of a lack of intellectual courage. As it prepares to manage the post-crisis economy, The Fed has made no acknowledgement of the fact that it didn’t see the crisis itself coming. Of course, the cause of a financial crisis is far less obvious than the cause of a crash or a hangover: there are no skidmarks, no empty bottle to link effect to cause. But the fact that The Fed was caught completely unawares by the crisis should have led to some recognition that maybe, just maybe, its model of the economy was at fault.

Far from it. Instead, if anything is more visible in Yellen’s technical speech than it was in Bernanke’s before the crisis, it’s the inappropriate model that blinded The Fed—and the economics profession in general—to the dangers before 2007. In fact, that model is so visible that its key word—“equilibrium”—turns up in a word cloud of Yellen’s speech—see Figure 1. “Equilibrium” is the 17th most frequent word in the document, and the only significant words that appear more frequently are “Inflation” and “Monetary”.

In contrast, “Crisis” gets a mere 6 mentions, and household debt gets only one.

Figure 1: Word cloud (courtesy of tagul.com) of Yellen’s speech “Normalizing Monetary Policy

 

 

What’s evident, when one compares Yellen’s speech to one to a similar audience by Bernanke in July 2007—the month before the crisis began—is that The Fed is just as much in the grip of conventional economic thinking as it was before the crisis. The only difference is that Bernanke’s speech focused on the “inflation expectations” aspect of The Fed’s model—which would be rather hard for Yellen to focus on, given that inflation is running at zero (versus 4% when Bernanke spoke). So Yellen has fallen back on the core concept—that a market economy reaches “equilibrium”—rather than part of the fantasy mechanism by which The Fed believes equilibrium is achieved.

Figure 2: Bernanke’s July 2007 speech “Inflation Expectations and Inflation Forecasting

 

Equilibrium. What nonsense! But the belief that the economy reaches equilibrium—that it can be modelled as if it is in equilibrium—is a core delusion of mainstream economics. There was some excuse for looking at the world prior to the crisis and seeing equilibrium—though the more sensible people saw “Bubble”. But after it? How can one look back on that carnage and see equilibrium?

The epiphany that the real world is not in equilibrium is what enabled Irving Fisher to escape from the shackles of conventional thinking after the Great Depression. Prior to the crisis, he achieved fame amongst mainstream economists for extending the conventional “supply and demand” theory to cover finance markets. As part of that theory, he had to assume that the market for loans was in equilibrium at all times—and as a conventional economist, he had no problem in making the necessary assumptions:

(A) The market must be cleared – and cleared with respect to every interval of time. (B) The debts must be paid. (Fisher, The Theory of Interest, 1930)

After his economic theory had led him to personal ruin (Fisher lost over $100 million in current dollar terms during the Crash of 1929) Fisher realised that this false belief in equilibrium was the key delusion that led him astray. His new approach, which he called the “Debt Deflation Theory of Great Depressions”, was predicated on the principle that the economy must be modelled in disequilibrium:

the exact equilibrium thus sought is seldom reached and never long maintained. New disturbances are, humanly speaking, sure to occur, so that, in actual fact, any variable is almost always above or below the ideal equilibrium. (Fisher, “The Debt-Deflation Theory of Great Depressions”, 1933)

This led him to focus on two disequilibrium factors as key to explaining a crisis like the Great Depression—and like the one we have just been through—were “over-indebtedness to start with and deflation following soon after”.

So where do we stand today on Fisher’s disequilibrium markers of debt and deflation? In a phrase, on the precipice. As Figure 3 shows, private debt has only been reduced by 25% of GDP, whereas the decline in debt from its peak in 1932 to the end of WWII was almost 100% of GDP (this graph combined Federal Reserve data since 1945 with Census data from 1916 to 1970, and rescales the Census data to match The Fed’s data in 1945). And though we haven’t had deflation as severe as in the Great Depression—when prices fell by more 10% a year—we are back in deflation territory once more.

Figure 3: Private debt and inflation

 

In this environment, Yellen is hoping that the economy is going to return to “equilibrium”—where this can also be interpreted as “behaving like the economy did from 1993 until all hell broke loose in 2007”. Fat chance.