William White on Ultra Easy Monetary Policy and the Law of Unintended Consequences

The following is an excerpt of an article written for the Dallas Fed this month by William R. White, a well-known Canadian economist who served as Chief Economist for the Bank of International Settlements until 2008 and was also one of the few economists to have predicted the financial crisis. He is now head of Economic Development at the OECD.


In this paper, an attempt is made to evaluate the desirability of ultra easy monetary policy by weighing up the balance of the desirable short run effects and the undesirable longer run effects – the unintended consequences. The conclusion is that there are limits to what central banks can do. One reason for believing this is that monetary stimulus, operating through traditional (“flow”) channels, might now be less effective in stimulating aggregate demand than previously. Further, cumulative (“stock”) effects provide negative feedback mechanisms that over time also weaken both supply and demand. It is also the case that ultra easy monetary policies can eventually threaten the health of financial institutions and the functioning of financial markets, threaten the “independence” of central banks, and can encourage imprudent behavior on the part of governments. None of these unintended consequences is desirable. Since monetary policy is not “a free lunch”, governments must therefore use much more vigorously the policy levers they still control to support strong, sustainable and balanced growth at the global level.

“This long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell that when the storm is long past the sea is flat again”.

John Maynard Keynes

“No very deep knowledge of economics is usually needed for grasping the immediate effects of a measure; but the task of economics is to foretell the remoter effects, and so to allow us to avoid such acts as attempt to remedy a present ill by sowing the seeds of a much greater ill for the future”.

Ludwig von Mises 

The central banks of the advanced market economies (AME’s)  have embarked upon one of the greatest economic experiments of all time ‐ ultra easy monetary policy. In the aftermath of the economic and financial crisis which began in the summer of 2007, they lowered policy rates effectively to the zero lower bound (ZLB). In addition, they took various actions which not only caused their balance sheets to swell enormously, but also increased the riskiness of the assets they chose to purchase. Their actions also had the effect of putting downward pressure on their exchange rates against the currencies of Emerging Market Economies (EME’s). Since virtually all EME’s tended to resist this pressure, their foreign exchange reserves rose to record levels, helping to lower long term rates in AME’s as well. Moreover, domestic monetary conditions in the EMEs were eased as well. The size and global scope of these discretionary policies makes them historically unprecedented. Even during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, policy rates and longer term rates in the most affected countries (like the US) were never reduced to such low levels.

In the immediate aftermath of the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, the exceptional measures introduced by the central banks of major AME’s were rightly and successfully directed to restoring financial stability. Interbank markets in particular had dried up, and there were serious concerns about a financial implosion that could have had important implications for the real economy. Subsequently, however, as the financial system seemed to stabilize, the justification for central bank easing became more firmly rooted in the belief that such policies were required to restore aggregate demand after the sharp economic downturn of 2009. In part, this was a response to the prevailing orthodoxy that monetary policy in the 1930’s had not been easy enough and that this error had contributed materially to the severity of the Great Depression in the United States. However, it was also due to the growing reluctance to use more fiscal stimulus to support demand, given growing market concerns about the extent to which sovereign debt had built up during the economic downturn. The fact that monetary policy was increasingly seen as the “only game in town” implied that central banks in some AME’s intensified their easing even as the economic recovery seemed to strengthen through 2010 and early 2011. Subsequent fears about a further economic downturn, reopening the issue of potential financial instability, gave further impetus to “ultra easy monetary policy”.

From a Keynesian perspective, based essentially on a one period model of the determinants of aggregate demand, it seemed clearly appropriate to try to support the level of spending. After the recession of 2009, the economies of the AME’s seemed to be operating well below potential, and inflationary pressures remained subdued. Indeed, various authors used plausible versions of the Taylor rule to assert that the real policy rate required to reestablish a full employment equilibrium (and prevent deflation) was significantly negative. Such findings were used to justify the use of non standard monetary measures when nominal policy rates hit the ZLB.

There is, however, an alternative perspective that focuses on how such policies can also lead to unintended consequences over longer time periods. This strand of thought also goes back to the pre War period, when many business cycle theorists focused on the cumulative effects of bank‐created‐credit on the supply side of the economy. In particular, the Austrian school of thought, spearheaded by von Mises and Hayek, warned that credit driven expansions would eventually lead to a costly misallocation of real resources (“malinvestments”) that would end in crisis. Based on his experience during the Japanese crisis of the 1990’s, Koo (2003) pointed out that an overhang of corporate investment and corporate debt could also lead to the same result (a “balance sheet recession”).

Researchers at the Bank for International Settlements have suggested that a much broader spectrum of credit driven “imbalances”, financial as well as real, could potentially lead to boom‐bust processes that might threaten both price stability and financial stability. This BIS way of thinking about economic and financial crises, treating them as systemic breakdowns that could be triggered anywhere in an overstretched system, also has much in common with insights provided by interdisciplinary work on complex adaptive systems. This work indicates that such systems, built up as a result of cumulative processes, can have highly unpredictable dynamics and can demonstrate significant non linearities. The insights of George Soros, reflecting decades of active market participation, are of a similar nature.  

Source: Dallas Fed (pdf)

Also see “The origins of the next crisis“, which predicted the deflationary policy path resulting from simultaneous private and public sector cuts across a broad range of economies. The article was inspired by a 2010 William White speech. A recent article on “The Fed, the interest income channel and net interest margins” dovetails with White’s commentary here about the unintended consequences of easy money.

  1. David_Lazarus says

    While I would regard myself as a Keynesian, I do see significant merit in the work of Hayek. Keynesian policy also tries to restrain bubbles via counter cyclical policy but that element is almost completely ignore by politicians and neoclassical economists. Then it is only referenced in the spending element of the solutions, and then derided. When you look back at the thirties, and see how they dealt with the crisis you can see elements of Hayek in the collapse and then Keynes in the stimulus. What they did right then, was allow the elimination of excess credit and debt that allowed the Keynesian stimulus to work. This was not done this time. Debt is still a major problem in most western economies and the “stimulus” was insufficient and badly targeted to minimise its impact. Business cycles are normal yet the Fed interfere and distort the normal cycle.

    The Fed have messed up. My solution would be to lower interest rates to a few percent but high enough to maintain the deleveraging pressure on debtors. That would have maintained interest incomes for those with savings and pensioners, yet not allowed debtors off the hook. The other side of the equation is that economists should have also stopped the excessive levels of debt building up in the first place. Proper Hayek and Keynes followers would have criticised the deregulation and debt build up. True Austrians should also have commented on the debt build up, not now when government debt is the next problem. Private debt is the current problem and nothing is being done to fix that problem.

  2. voices in the wilderness says

    Good analysis. Now combine it with Harry Dent’s demographic analysis of consumption, and quantitative easing looks like a complete non-starter.

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