Commentary

We Can’t Spend Our Way out of This Quagmire

The cause of the economic crisis was not the collapse of the secondary mortgage market, policies aimed at increasing home ownership or the rise of exotic financial instruments. These factors affected the nature of the crisis, but the ultimate cause was the bursting of a real estate bubble made possible by excessive money growth.

Abundant money and lower interest rates spur buying, pushing up prices. Since the supply of housing is relatively inflexible, housing prices rise quickly. Beginning in 2001, rising house prices and a rallying stock market increased homeowners’ perceived net worth. People believed they didn’t have to save as much for retirement or for their children’s college education. And they could borrow more against their increased home equity, allowing them to buy more goods, services, stocks and real estate. Credit-fueled spending reinforced the rising prices of everything, but especially real estate and stocks.

But the increase in real estate prices and the increased spending it supported were a fantasy. The economy’s ability to produce real goods and services is determined by the amount of plant and equipment, the number of workers, the supply of raw materials, and so on. We inevitably moved into a period of general inflation, so the Fed eventually had to reign in its easy money policy. Borrowing became more expensive, so people scaled back their spending or began selling assets to sustain it. Either response puts downward pressure on the prices of real estate and stocks, so prices that everyone counted on to rise forever began falling. The bear stampede was on.

In 2001, the Federal Reserve began expanding the money supply. Year-over-year growth rose briefly above 10 percent and remained above 8 percent into the second half of 2003. The effect on interest rates was immediate; the Fed funds rate that began 2001 at 6.25 percent ended that same year at 1.75 percent. It fell further in 2002 and 2003, reaching a record low of 1 percent in mid-2003. But if the Fed hadn’t increased the money supply from 2002 to 2006, increased demand for credit resulting from deficit spending and the increased demand for real estate would have pushed up interest rates. This would have discouraged borrowing. Rising interest rates would have thwarted the process by which an increase in borrowing by the government and by the public artificially inflates asset prices, begetting even more borrowing.

Most economists, government officials and politicians continue to believe the standard Keynesian explanation for recessions: Recessions are caused by consumers and firms becoming “spooked” for no meaningful reason, so consumption and investment spending falls below normal levels. This reduces demand for goods and services, which reduces employment, which reduces spending even further, and so on. Since the level of spending before the “spooking” was presumed to be sustainable, the solution to the problem is simple: Increase spending to where it had been during the boom.

You can’t solve an excessive spending problem by spending more. We are making the crisis worse.”

In reality, excessive money growth drove asset prices up and drove interest rates down, making people feel richer than they really were and lowering the cost of borrowing money to facilitate more spending. Since the level of spending before the period of excessive money growth was just sustainable, the resulting level of consumption and business investment spending was unsustainable. The solution is to allow asset prices to fall to levels that accurately reflect what our economy can produce. This will make it clear to people that they are not as rich as they thought two years ago and thereby return spending to sustainable levels.

Still, virtually everyone agrees that we need to further stimulate the economy even though current attempts to solve our crisis by increasing spending is exactly the wrong thing to do. No one wants to bear the political cost for appearing to be uncaring by favoring a policy of “doing nothing.” Out of political cowardice, the federal government is attempting to produce a solution that is penny-wise and pound foolish. You can’t solve an excessive spending problem by spending more. We are making the crisis worse.

We have been down this road before. Most recessions start with the bursting of bubbles that grew large because of excessive money growth. But again and again, we presume a Keynesian cause and a Keynesian cure.

Our recent stock market and housing market crashes can prove to be the start of a sound and rapid recovery — if we will have the courage to let it be so.

David C. Rose is a Professor of Economics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Lawrence H. White is the F.A. Hayek Professor of Economic History at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and an Adjunct Scholar of the Cato Institute.