Federal Reserve Governor Daniel Tarullo tackled the issue of financial stability in a speech that I think is well worth the time to read. The starting point is that many lessons have been learned over the past two cycles, including the perils of ignoring financial stability issues. But how should such concerns be incorporated into the policymaking process? Tarullo:
While few today would take the pre-crisis view common among central bankers that financial stability should not be an explicit concern of monetary policy, there is considerable disagreement over--among other things--the weight that financial stability concerns should carry compared with traditional monetary policy goals of price stability and maximum employment.
Tarullo begins with a brief overview of the financial crisis and the Fed's response, declaring partial victory:
...while the recovery has been frustratingly slow and remains incomplete, there has been real progress, despite the fact that in the past couple of years a restrictive fiscal policy has been working at cross-purposes to monetary policy, and that balance sheet repair and financial strains in Europe have made it more difficult for the economy to muster much self-sustaining momentum.
As Tarullo notes, the Fed's actions have not come without backlash. Of much focus is the size of the balance sheet, and the likelihood of unwinding the resulting liquidity should inflation rear its head. Tarullo quickly dismisses this concern as no longer of major concern given the expansion of the Fed's toolkit. He turns his attention toward bigger game:
The area of concern about recent monetary policy that I want to address at greater length relates to financial stability. The worry is that the actual extended period of low interest rates, along with expectations fostered by forward guidance of continued low rates, may be incentivizing financial market actors to take on additional risks to boost margins, thereby contributing to unsustainable increases in asset prices and a consequent buildup of systemic vulnerabilities. Indeed, in the years preceding the crisis, a few prescient observers swam against the tide of conventional wisdom to argue that a sustained period of low rates was inducing investors to "reach for yield" and thereby endangering the financial system.
Policymakers currently anticipate the Fed will hold interest rates near zero into 2015, followed by only a gradual path of tightening. The concern is that such a long period of low rates will spawn an asset bubble, or bubbles, similar to the process that many feel fueled the housing boom last decade. The eventual unwinding of any bubbles would likely be unpleasant. But, presumably, the period of low rates occurred for a reason - to support economic activity. Therein lies the conundrum for policymakers:
The very accommodative monetary policy that contributed to the restoration of financial stability could, if maintained long enough in the face of slow recovery in the real economy, eventually sow the seeds of renewed financial instability. Yet removal of accommodation could choke off the recovery just as it seems poised to gain at least a bit more momentum.
So how can the Federal Reserve protect against financial instability? Tarullo here makes a point I think the Fed will frequently reiterate:
As a preliminary matter, it is important to note that incorporating financial stability considerations into monetary policy decisions need not imply the creation of an additional mandate for monetary policy. The potentially huge effect on price stability and employment associated with bouts of serious financial instability gives ample justification.
By addressing financial instability risks, they are attempting to minimize deviations in inflation and unemployment. In effect, they might slow the pace of activity on the upside in return for minimizing the downside. This, however, is easier said than done, as it is difficult to sell delaying progress on the real problems of low inflation and high unemployment to fight against a phantom downturn:
Of course, this preliminary observation underscores the fact that the identification of systemic risks, especially those based on the putative emergence of asset bubbles, is not a straightforward exercise. The eventual impact of the bursting of the pre-crisis housing bubble on financial stability went famously underdiagnosed by policymakers and many private analysts. But there would be considerable economic downside in reacting with policy measures each time a case could be made that a bubble was developing.
The Fed is actively paying attention to markets in the search for stability risks. Tarullo reports the outcome of the Fed's new macroprudential efforts:
At present, our monitoring does find some evidence of increased duration and credit risk, but the increases appear relatively moderate to date--particularly at the largest banks and life insurers. Moreover, valuations for broad categories of assets such as real estate and corporate equities remain within historical norms, suggesting that valuation pressures, if present, are confined to narrower segments of assets. For example, valuations do appear stretched for farmland, although recent data are suggesting some slowing, and for the equity prices of some small technology firms.
No broad-based concerns such as the equity surge of the 1990s or the housing boom of the 2000s. Just pockets of issues here and there. That said, all is not perfect:
Still, there are areas where investors appear to have been very sanguine regarding certain types of exposure and modest in their demands for compensation to assume such risk. High-yield corporate bond and leveraged loan funds, for instance, have seen strong inflows, reflecting greater investor appetite for risky corporate credits, while underwriting standards have deteriorated, raising the possibility of large losses going forward.
Weak underwriting for risky, leveraged assets that investors seem eager to acquire for unusually little reward. This is the kind of situation, especially with leveraged assets, that will repeatedly gain the Fed's attention going forward. What action has the Fed taken? Tarullo:
In these circumstances, it has to date seemed appropriate to rely on supervisory responses. For example, in the face of substantial growth in the volume of leveraged lending and the deterioration in underwriting standards, the Federal Reserve, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation issued updated guidance on leverage lending in March 2013. This guidance outlined principles related to safe and sound leveraged lending activities, including the expectation that banks and thrifts originate leveraged loans using prudent underwriting standards regardless of their intent to hold or distribute them.
In addition, the Federal Reserve, alongside other regulators, has been working with the firms we supervise to increase their resilience to possible interest rate shocks...Our analysis to this point (undertaken outside of our annual stress test program) suggests that banking firms are capitalized to withstand the losses in asset valuations that would arise from large spikes in rates, which, moreover, would see an offset from the increase in the value of bank deposit franchises. This finding is consistent with the lack of widespread stress during the period of May through June 2013 when interest rates increased considerably. The next set of stress-test results, which we will release next month, will provide further insight on this point, both to regulators and to markets.
Some enhanced guidance and additional stress tests. I think it would be reasonable to describe this response as underwhelming. Would "additional guidance" have deterred lending activity during the housing bubble? I somehow doubt it. Indeed, Tarullo has his doubts:
While ad hoc supervisory action aimed at specific lending or risks is surely a useful tool, it has its limitations. First, it is a bit too soon to judge precisely how effective these supervisory actions--such as last year's leveraged lending guidance--have been. Second, even if they prove effective in containing discrete excesses, it is not clear that the somewhat deliberate supervisory process would be adequate to deal with a more pervasive reach for yield affecting many areas of credit extension. Third, and perhaps most important, the extent to which supervisory practice can either lean against the wind or increase the overall resiliency of the financial system is limited by the fact that it applies only to prudentially regulated firms. This circumstance creates an incentive for intermediation activities to migrate outside of the regulated sector.
The last point is critical. Increased regulatory activity might just push more activity into the shadow banking realm. There the threat of financial instability might increase exponentially, but without a regulator as a backstop. I think this issue will tend to restrain the Fed's interest in heavy-handed regulatory activity.
Tarullo follows with a discussion of time-varying policies, citing the example of increased loan-to-value requirements for mortgages as lending accelerates. This is an area to watch, as Tarullo sees value in this approach:
...I would devote particular attention to policies that can act as the rough equivalent of an increase in interest rates for particular sources of funding. Such policies would be more responsive to problems that were building quickly because of certain kinds of credit, without regard to whether they were being deployed in one or many sectors of the economy...
Such policies could slow the progress of an asset bubble and, as Tarullo points out, provide additional time for policymakers to determine if the situation requires a change in overall monetary policy. Ultimately, however, Tarullo is a realist. He doesn't intend to put all his eggs in the macroprudential basket:
The foregoing discussion has considered the ways in which existing supervisory authority and new forms of macroprudential authority may allow monetary policymakers to avoid, or at least defer, raising interest rates to contain growing systemic risks under circumstances in which policy is falling well short of achieving one or both elements of the dual mandate. However, as has doubtless been apparent, I believe these alternative policy instruments have real limitations.
As he later says, this means that the Fed should not take the direct monetary policy action "off the table" when it comes to addressing financial instability. What does that mean for policy in the near term? Tarullo:
As I noted earlier, I do not think that at present we are confronted with a situation that would warrant a change in the monetary policy we have been pursuing...
Not terribly surprising. After all, given that policymakers expect a long period of low rates, they obviously are not expecting sufficient financial instability to justify changing that outcome. But expect more talk about the topic:
...But for that very reason, now is a good time to consider these issues more actively. One useful step would be development of a framework that would allow us to make a more analytic, less instinctual judgment on the potential tradeoffs between enhanced financial stability and reduced economic activity. This will be an intellectually challenging exercise, but in itself does not entail any changes in policy.
Bottom Line: The Fed continues to explore the role of monetary policy in addressing asset bubbles. But engaging such concerns head on with tighter policy remains a secondary option. The first option is a variety of macroprudential tools. Moreover, policymakers believe they have the time to explore such tools, much as they have had time to consider managing their expanded balance sheet. They will also remain cautious to act out fear of increasing the risk of instability by driving activity out from under their purview. At this point, my gut reaction is that by the time the Fed feels they are left with no other option but to tighten policy to limit financial instability risks, the damage will already have been done.