Bernanke: We Didn’t Do a Good job Regulating, so Let Us Regulate More

UPDATE: CR appears to agree with me, even as he raises another point:

Bernanke used data from other countries to suggest monetary policy was not a huge contributor to the bubble … however, Bernanke didn’t discuss if non-traditional mortgage products contributed to housing bubbles in other countries. This would seem like a key missing part of the speech.

I’m willing to believe that my interpretation of this speech is inaccurate, but here’s the evidence:

Some observers have assigned monetary policy a central role in the crisis. Specifically, they claim that excessively easy monetary policy by the Federal Reserve in the first half of the decade helped cause a bubble in house prices in the United States, a bubble whose inevitable collapse proved a major source of the financial and economic stresses of the past two years. Proponents of this view typically argue for a substantially greater role for monetary policy in preventing and controlling bubbles in the prices of housing and other assets. In contrast, others have taken the position that policy was appropriate for the macroeconomic conditions that prevailed, and that it was neither a principal cause of the housing bubble nor the right tool for controlling the increase in house prices. Obviously, in light of the economic damage inflicted by the collapses of two asset price bubbles over the past decade, a great deal more than historical accuracy rides on the resolution of this debate.

If I have to pick, I’ll take the latter group. Easy money alone doesn’t cause a crisis. So when he says:

Can accommodative monetary policies during this period reasonably account for the magnitude of the increase in house prices that we observed? If not, what does account for it?

The first answer is clearly “No.” And the second answer is important. Eventually, he answers it:

I noted earlier that the most important source of lower initial monthly payments, which allowed more people to enter the housing market and bid for properties, was not the general level of short-term interest rates, but the increasing use of more exotic types of mortgages and the associated decline of underwriting standards. That conclusion suggests that the best response to the housing bubble would have been regulatory, not monetary. Stronger regulation and supervision aimed at problems with underwriting practices and lenders’ risk management would have been a more effective and surgical approach to constraining the housing bubble than a general increase in interest rates. Moreover, regulators, supervisors, and the private sector could have more effectively addressed building risk concentrations and inadequate risk-management practices without necessarily having had to make a judgment about the sustainability of house price increases.

The Federal Reserve and other agencies did make efforts to address poor mortgage underwriting practices. In 2005, we worked with other banking regulators to develop guidance for banks on nontraditional mortgages, notably interest-only and option-ARM products. In March 2007, we issued interagency guidance on subprime lending, which was finalized in June. After a series of hearings that began in June 2006, we used authority granted us under the Truth in Lending Act to issue rules that apply to all high-cost mortgage lenders, not just banks. However, these efforts came too late or were insufficient to stop the decline in underwriting standards and effectively constrain the housing bubble. [emphases mine]

As Albert Brooks once noted, he “buried the lede.” Bernanke notes that the “nontraditional” products constituted around 1/3 of the market by 2003. (As many others have noted, those mortgages were not passed through/to FHA/Fannie/Freddie, either.) Two years later, guidelines were being developed.

An institution that did not attempt to regulate claiming that it should be given more regulatory power is an invitation to disaster. Or am I missing something?

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