[T]he financial system (including the institutions themselves, products traded, and risks taken) has “gotten away from” the Fed’s ability to comprehend. The Fed is primarily responsible for that state of affairs, and it is out of its depth. Former Chairman Greenspan created – and reveled in – a cult of personality centered on himself, and in the process created a tremendous and growing moral hazard. By successive bailouts and purporting to understand (to a higher and higher level of expressed confidence) a quickly changing financial system of growing complexity and leverage, he cultivated an ever-increasing (but unjustified) faith in the Fed’s apparent ability to fine-tune the American (and, by extension, the world’s) economy. Ironically, this development was occurring at the very time that financial innovations and leverage were making the system more brittle and less safe. He extolled the virtues of derivatives and minimized the danger of leverage and risky securities and dot-com stocks, all while he should have been putting on the brakes. It was not just the disappearance of vast swaths of the American financial system into unregulated subsidiaries of financial institutions, nor was it just government policies that encouraged the creation and syndication of “no-documentation” mortgages to people who could not afford them. It was also the low interest rates from 2002 to 2005, the failure to see the expanding real estate bubble caused by an unprecedented increase in leverage and risk, and the general failure to understand the financial conditions of the world’s major institutions. Under Chairman Bernanke, the combination of ZIRP and QE completed the passage of the Fed from sober protector of a fiat currency to ineffective collection of frantically-flailing, over-educated, posturing bureaucrats engaged in ever more-astounding experiments in monetary extremism.
If you look at the history of Fed policy from Greenspan to Bernanke, you see two broad and destructive paths quite clearly. One path is the cult of central banking, in which the central bank gradually acquired the mantle of all-knowing guru and maestro, capable of fine-tuning the global economy and financial system, despite their infinite complexity. On this path traveled arrogance, carelessness and a rigid and narrow orthodoxy substituting for an open-minded quest to understand exactly what the modern financial system actually is and how it really works. The second path is one of lower and lower discipline, less and less conservative stewardship of the precious confidence that is all that stands between fiat currency and monetary ruin. Monetary debasement in its chronic form erodes people’s savings. In its acute and later stages, it can destroy the social cohesion of a society as wealth is stolen and/or created not by ideas, effort and leadership, but rather by the wild swings of asset prices engendered by the loss of any anchor to enduring value. In that phase, wealth and credit assets (debt) are confiscated or devalued by various means, including inflation and taxation, or by changes to laws relating to the rights of asset holders. Speculators win, savers are destroyed, and the ties that bind either fray or rip. We see no signs that our leaders possess the understanding, courage or discipline to avoid this.