Milton Friedman argued that the Great Depression was caused by a banking collapse that reduced the money stock and decreased velocity leading to a massive failure of aggregate demand that was not countered by the Federal Reserve. The title of his book with Anna Schwartz is apt, A Monetary History of the United States. Ben Bernanke also put the banking crisis at the center of his story of the Great Depression but the propagation mechanism was quite different. Bernanke argued that the banking crisis led to a collapse of credit. His contribution to Great Depression literature is also aptly titled, Nonmonetary Effects of the Financial Crisis in the Propagation of the Great Depression.
In an excellent paper from Boom and Bust Banking, Jeff Hummel shows that these two stories have different implications for policy. (FYI, B&BB was edited by David Beckworth and also contains excellent papers by Scott Sumner, Nicholas Rowe, Larry White and others. Full disclosure, I was the general editor.) In Friedman’s story what is required is monetary policy, an increase in the money stock to keep nominal GDP from falling. In Bernanke’s story what is required is actually fiscal policy (albeit fiscal policy performed by the Fed), namely emergency lending to banks to keep credit flowing. These two approaches are not mutually exclusive and in ordinary times the differences are subtle. Under the immense pressure of the great recession, however, the differences became large and important. Instead of primarily pursuing a Friedman policy of injecting liquidity into the system, Bernanke followed his nonmonetary prescription and injected credit. Bernanke’s approach has turned the Fed into what Hummel calls a central planner of credit (e.g here), an unprecedented change with potentially very large consequences for the future.
What brought Hummel’s paper to mind today was strong support from a surprising source, a broadside against Bernanke’s handling of the great recession from the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Jeffrey Lacker (writing with Renee Haltom). Lacker and Haltom don’t cite Hummel but they support his analysis and although they write in careful, measured tones you don’t have to be a Straussian to recognize that it’s a direct attack on Bernanke:
When the central bank utilizes “lender of last resort” powers to allocate credit to targeted firms and markets, it encourages excessive risk-taking and contributes to financial instability. It also embroils the central bank in distributional politics and jeopardizes the independence that is critical to the central bank’s ability to ensure price stability. The lesson to be learned from the expansive use of the Fed’s emergency-lending powers in recent decades is that it threatens both financial stability and the Fed’s primary mission of ensuring monetary stability.
One thing Lacker and Haltom don’t do, however, is say how the Fed can unwind its positions. During the crisis the Fed pulled a genie out of the bottle and the genie delivered trillions to grateful borrowers. But how can the genie be put back in the bottle? The problem, in my view, is not primarily one of inflation or economics but now of politics.