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The Roots of America’s Financial Crisis

CAMBRIDGE – The US Federal Reserve’s desperate attempts to keep America’s economy from sinking are remarkable for at least two reasons. First, until just a few months ago, the conventional wisdom was that the US would avoid recession. Now recession looks certain. Second, the Fed’s actions do not seem to be effective. Although interest rates have been slashed and the Fed has lavished liquidity on cash-strapped banks, the crisis is deepening. 

To a large extent, the US crisis was actually made by the Fed, helped by the wishful thinking of the Bush administration. One main culprit was none other than Alan Greenspan, who left the current Fed Chairman, Ben Bernanke, with a terrible situation. But Bernanke was a Fed governor in the Greenspan years, and he, too, failed to diagnose correctly the growing problems with its policies. 

Today’s financial crisis has its immediate roots in 2001, amid the end of the Internet boom and the shock of the September 11 terrorist attacks. It was at that point that the Fed turned on the monetary spigots to try to combat an economic slowdown. The Fed pumped money into the US economy and slashed its main interest rate – the Federal Funds rate – from 3.5% in August 2001 to a mere 1% by mid-2003. The Fed held this rate too low for too long.

Monetary expansion generally makes it easier to borrow, and lowers the costs of doing so, throughout the economy. It also tends to weaken the currency and increase inflation. All of this began to happen in the US.