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Bubbles.

The Trouble With Financial Bubbles

Central bankers remain divided about when they should seek to prick asset bubbles, with some arguing that maintaining financial stability is too complex an objective. But we need our central bankers to make difficult decisions that require balancing potentially conflicting objectives, even if they are not always right.

LONDON – Very soon after the magnitude of the 2008 financial crisis became clear, a lively debate began about whether central banks and regulators could – and should – have done more to head it off. The traditional view, notably shared by former US Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, is that any attempt to prick financial bubbles in advance is doomed to failure. The most central banks can do is to clean up the mess.

Bubble-pricking may indeed choke off growth unnecessarily – and at high social cost. But there is a counter-argument. Economists at the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) have maintained that the costs of the crisis were so large, and the cleanup so long, that we should surely now look for ways to act pre-emptively when we again see a dangerous build-up of liquidity and credit.

Hence the fierce (albeit arcane and polite) dispute between the two sides at the International Monetary Fund’s recent meeting in Lima, Peru. For the literary-minded, it was reminiscent of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver finds himself caught in a war between two tribes, one of which believes that a boiled egg should always be opened at the narrow end, while the other is fervent in its view that a spoon fits better into the bigger, rounded end.

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