Easy Money and Asset Bubbles
| Peter Klein |
Central to the “Austrian” understanding of business cycles is the idea that monetary expansion — in Wicksellian terms, money printing that pushes interest rates below their “natural” levels — leads to overinvestment in long-term, capital-intensive projects and long-lived, durable assets (and underinvestment in other types of projects, hence the more general term “malinvestment”). As one example, Austrians interpret asset price bubbles — such as the US housing price bubble of the 1990s and 2000s, the tech bubble of the 1990s, the farmland bubble that may now be going on — as the result, at least partly, of loose monetary policy coming from the central bank. In contrast, some financial economists, such as Laureate Fama, deny that bubbles exist (or can even be defined), while others, such as Laureate Shiller, see bubbles as endemic but unrelated to government policy, resulting simply from irrationality on the part of market participants.
Michael Bordo and John Landon-Lane have released two new working papers on monetary policy and asset price bubbles, “Does Expansionary Monetary Policy Cause Asset Price Booms; Some Historical and Empirical Evidence,” and “What Explains House Price Booms?: History and Empirical Evidence.” (Both are gated by NBER, unfortunately, but there may be ungated copies floating around.) These are technical, time-series econometrics papers, but in both cases, the conclusions are straightforward: easy money is a main cause of asset price bubbles. Other factors are also important, particularly regarding the recent US housing bubble (I suspect that housing regulation shows up in their residual terms), but the link between monetary policy and bubbles is very clear. To be sure, Bordo and Landon-Lane don’t define easy money in exactly the Austrian-Wicksellian way, which references natural rates (the rates that reflect the time preferences of borrowers and savers), but as interest rates below (or money growth rates above) the targets set by policymakers. Still, the general recognition that bubbles are not random, or endogenous to financial markets, but connected to specific government policies designed to stimulate the economy, is a very important result that will hopefully influence current economic policy debates.