Wall Street Journal
Monday January 28, 2008 Pg A2
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's urgency in addressing the risk of recession can be traced in part to the insights from his research on the financial system and the Great Depression. In June, Mr. Bernanke delivered a speech on the "financial accelerator," which describes how weakness in the financial system an compound an economic downturn. He developed the theory in the 1980s to explain the depth and duration of the Great Depression, and later expanded on it in collaboration with Mark Gertler of New York University.
Rereading that speech helps explain last week's 0.75-percentage-point rate cut, a likely cut this week, and Mr. Bernanke's advocacy of a fiscal stimulus. Fed commentary these days contains a lot of references to "feedback loops" and self-reinforcing spirals of declining confidence and asset prices. Those are the hallmark of the financial accelerator in action. They give the current economic cycle a different cast from the typical post-World War II cycle, which was driven largely by trends in inventories, employment and - in 2001 - capital investment.
"Economic or financial news has the potential to increase financial strains and lead to further constraints on the supply of credit to households and businesses," Mr. Bernanke observed in a speech Jan. 10. Note the reference to "news": it's not just economic and financial developments, but how market confidence is affected by news of those developments, that can aggravate the downward spiral. Taht may explain why just the threat of a steep stock decline last Tuesday played a part in Mr. Bernanke's decision to cut rates: allowing the drop to play out may have had confidencedamaging consequences beond the lost stock-market wealth.
- Greg Ip