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Friday, November 30, 2007

Fed's Poole: Market Bailouts and the "Fed Put"

by Calculated Risk on 11/30/2007 04:57:00 PM

From William Poole, President, St. Louis Fed: Market Bailouts and the "Fed Put". In this speech, Poole addresses the "Bernanke Put" and the possible moral hazard created by the Fed. Poole defends the Fed and the recent rate cuts. Here is his conclusion:

Federal Reserve policy that yields greater stability has not and will not protect from loss those who invest in failed strategies, financial or otherwise. Investors and entrepreneurs have as much incentive as they ever had to manage risk appropriately. What they do not have to deal with is macroeconomic risk of the magnitude experienced all too often in the past.

In the present situation, many investors in subprime paper will take heavy losses and there is no monetary policy that could avoid those losses. Clearly, recent Fed policy actions have not protected investors in subprime paper. The policy objective is not to prevent losses but to restore normal market processes. The issue is not whether subprime paper will trade at 70 cents on the dollar, or 30 cents, but that the paper in fact can trade at some market price determined by usual market processes. Since August, such paper has traded hardly at all. An active financial market is central to the process of economic growth and it is that growth, not prices in financial markets per se, that the Fed cares about.

One of the most reliable and predictable features of the Fed’s monetary policy is action to prevent systemic financial collapse. If this regularity of policy is what is meant by the “Fed put,” then so be it, but the term seems to me to be extremely misleading. The Fed does not have the desire or tools to prevent widespread losses in a particular sector but should not sit by while a financial upset becomes a financial calamity affecting the entire economy. Whether further cuts in the fed funds rate target will alleviate financial turmoil, or risk adding to it, is always an appropriate topic for the FOMC to discuss. But one thing should be clear: The Fed does not have the power to keep the stock market at the “proper” level, both because what is proper is never clear and because the Fed does not have policy instruments it can adjust to have predictable effects on stock prices.

From time to time, to be sure, Fed action to stabilize the economy—to cushion recession or deal with a systemic financial crisis—will have the effect of pushing up stock prices. That effect is part of the transmission mechanism through which monetary policy affects the economy. However, it is a fundamental misreading of monetary policy to believe that the stock market per se is an objective of policy. It is also a mistake to believe that a policy action that is desirable to help stabilize the economy should not be taken because it will also tend to increase stock prices. It makes no sense to let the economy suffer from continuing declines in stock prices for the purpose of “teaching stock market speculators a lesson.” “Teaching a lesson” is eerily reminiscent of Mellon’s liquidationist view. Nor should the central bank attempt to protect investors from their unwise decisions. Doing so would only divert policy from its central responsibility to maintain price stability and high employment.

The Fed would create moral hazard if it were to attempt to pump up the stock market whenever it fell regardless of whether or not such policy actions served the fundamental objectives of monetary policy. I have observed no evidence to suggest that the Fed has pursued such a course. To the extent that financial markets are more stable because market participants expect the Fed to be successful in achieving its policy objectives, then that is a desirable and expected outcome of good monetary policy. There is no moral hazard when largely predictable policy responses to new information have effects on financial markets.

That the monetary policy principles I have discussed here are unclear to many in the financial markets is unfortunate. Macroeconomic stabilization does not raise moral hazard issues because a stable economy provides no guarantee that individual firms and households will be protected from failure. Improved public understanding of this point will not only help the Fed to do its job more effectively but also will help private sector firms to understand better how to manage risk.