Friday, September 14, 2007

The Fed's Rate Cut

As Greg Mankiw recently pointed out and Wall Street Journal reporter David Wessel was quick to observe nearly a month ago, the actual federal funds rate has been trading below the Fed's target federal funds rate of 5.25%. The federal funds rate is the rate at which banks borrow from one another overnight, and it is the key benchmark interest rate for monetary policy. The Fed targets a relatively low, or loose, fed funds rate in order to encourage borrowing, speed up economic growth, and avoid recession. The Fed targets a neutral rate when it wants neither slower nor faster growth than the economy is currently experiencing. The Fed targets a relatively high, or tight, rate when it wants to discourage some borrowing, slow the pace of economic growth, and ensure price stability (low and stable inflation).

According to Mankiw, the actual fed funds rate averaged 5.02% during August—23 basis points lower than the target—while in the preceding 13 months, the Fed had never allowed the actual rate to deviate from the target by more than 1 basis point. Although we can't be sure until the next Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting on Tuesday, September 18, the behavior of the actual rate in August seems to suggest that the Fed will cut the target federal funds rate to at least 5.0%. A rate cut would mean that the Fed is backing away from a tighter policy stance associated with reducing inflation, and moving instead toward a more neutral monetary policy that will allow it to wait and see how the recent subprime and housing-market turmoil plays out in the broader economy.

The prospect of a rate cut raises the issue of moral hazard. Some critics feel that any loosening by the Fed will bail out borrowers who have taken on risky subprime mortgages and investors who have purchased the assets backed by such mortgages. By cutting rates, the Fed may encourage borrowers, lenders, and investors to make similar gambles in the future on the assumption that the Fed will intervene if things turn sour. Tyler Cowen's latest New York Times column argues that while the Fed should not go out of its way to help poor decision makers, the Fed's mandate—price stability and full employment—should not be sacrificed for fear of instigating moral hazard.

Discussion Questions

1. If banks become increasingly reluctant to lend to one another and to individual borrowers, what will happen to the types of consumption and investment expenditures that are typically financed by borrowing?

2. If borrowing difficulties persist for an extended period of time, what would you expect to happen to housing prices? What about economic growth? How should the Fed respond to this type of credit crunch?

3. Consider the borrowers, lenders, and investors who made poor decisions in the subprime market. Will some of them benefit from an FOMC decision to cut rates? Can the Fed prevent all moral hazard associated with monetary policy decisions? Can Fed policy provide total relief to the borrowers, lenders, and investors who made poor decisions in the subprime markets?

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