The Federal Reserve has no business distorting incentives by dabbling with billions in markets for private debt. Kudos to two officials at the Richmond Fed for making this point forcefully in the Wall Street Journal** today.
Normally, the Fed conducts monetary policy by buying or selling Treasury debt, which is thought to be neutral with respect to relative private interest rates. In other words, the Fed’s impact on the Treasury market, whatever that might be, does not encourage investment in housing at the expense of factory investment or vice versa. Since 2009, however, the Fed has attempted to support the housing and mortgage markets via massive purchases of mortgage securities originally issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This has the effect of reducing mortgage interest rates relative to rates on other kinds of private debt. It also constitutes a form of bailout for mortgage investors, who tend to receive favorable bids from the Fed for these assets. Free money! And more free money is dolled out by the Fed when it pays banks interest on the new reserve balances these transactions ultimately create.
One might object that the struggling mortgage market needed the Fed’s support in the wake of the housing crash. I do not accept that view because the mortgage and housing markets needed to unwind their excesses and monetary stimulus did not require mortgage purchases. But this also begs the question: what gave rise to the crisis? Over-investment in housing and a home price bubble fueled by tax-deductible interest, easy Fed monetary policy, regulatory capital standards that favored mortgage lending, prospective bailouts in case of failure, and loose bank credit standards. Those should all sound familiar. Now, the Fed believes it’s necessary to re-inflate the mortgage market via continuing asset purchases.
The Fed’s policies can be criticized on other grounds, but interfering in private debt markets should be avoided. It is an example of industrial policy that is clearly not even part of the Fed’s so-called mandate, and it ultimately means a continuing massive misallocation of resources into housing at the expense of other forms of investment.
** The article at the link should be ungated. If not, try Googling “wsj Fed’s Mortgage Favoritism.”