When crisis hit in 2008 it was mostly called the subprime crisis and it was normally assumed that the crisis had an US origin. I have always been skeptical about the US centric description of the crisis. As I see it the initial “impulse” to the crisis came from Europe rather than the US. However, the consequence of this impulse stemming from Europe led to a “passive” tightening of US monetary conditions as the Fed failed to meet the increased demand for dollars.
The collapse in both nominal (and real) GDP in the US and the euro zone in 2008-9 was very similar, but the “composition” of the shock was very different. In Europe the shock to NGDP came from a sharp drop in money supply growth, while the contraction in US NGDP was a result of a sharp contraction in money-velocity. The graphs below illustrate this.
The first graph is a graph with the broad money supply relative to the pre-crisis trend (2000-2007) in the euro zone and the US. The second graph is broad money velocity in the US and the euro zone relative to the pre-crisis trend (2000-2007).
The graphs very clearly illustrates that there has been a massive monetary contraction in the euro zone as a result of M3 significantly undershooting the pre-crisis trend. Had the ECB kept M3 growth on the pre-crisis trend then euro zone nominal GDP would long ago returned to the pre-crisis trend. On the other hand the Federal Reserve has actually been able to keep M2 on the pre-crisis path. However, that has not been enough to keep US NGDP on trend as M2-velocity has contracted sharply relative the pre-crisis trend.
Said in another way a M3 growth target of for example 6.5% would basically have been as good as an NGDP level target for the euro zone as velocity has returned to the pre-crisis trend. However, that would not have been the case in the US and that I my view illustrates why an NGDP level target is much preferable to a money supply target.
The European origin of the crisis – or how European banks caused a tightening of US monetary policy
Not surprisingly the focus of the discussion of the causes of the crisis often is on the US given both the subprime debacle and the collapse of Lehman Brothers. However, I believe that the shock actually (mostly) originated in Europe rather than the US. What happened in 2008 was that we saw a sharp rise in dollar demand coming from the European financial sector. This is best illustrated by the sharp drop in EUR/USD from close to 1.60 in July 2008 to 1.25 in early November 2008. The rise in dollar demand is obviously what caused the collapse in US money-velocity and in that regard it is notable that the rise in money demand in Europe primarily was an increase in demand for dollar rather than for euros.
This is why I stress the European origin of the crisis. However, the cause of the crisis nonetheless was a tightening of US monetary conditions as the Fed (initially) failed to appropriately respond to the increase in dollar demand – mostly because of the collapse of the US primary dealer system. Had the Fed had a more efficient system for open market operations in 2008 then I believe the crisis would have been much smaller and would have been over already in 2009. As the Fed got dollar-swap lines up and running and initiated quantitative easing the recovery got underway in 2009. This triggered a brisk recovery in both US and euro zone money-velocity. In that regard it is notable that the rebound in velocity actually was somewhat steeper in the euro zone than in the US.
The crisis might very well have ended in 2009, but new policy mistakes have prolonged the crisis and once again European problems are causing most headaches and the cause now clearly is that the ECB has allowed European monetary conditions to become excessively tight – just have a look at the money supply graph above. Euro zone M3 has now dropped more than 15% below the pre-crisis trend. This policy mistake has to some extent been counteracted by the Fed’s efforts to increase the US money supply, but the euro crisis have also led to another downleg in US money velocity. The Fed once again has failed to appropriately counteract this.
Both the Fed and the ECB have failed
In the discussion above I have tried to illustrate that we cannot fully understand the Great Recession without understanding the relationship between US and euro zone monetary policy and I believe that a full understanding of the crisis necessitates a discussion of European dollar demand.
Furthermore, the discussion shows that a credible money supply target would significantly have reduced the crisis in the euro zone. However, the shock to US money-velocity shows that an NGDP level target would “perform” much better than a simple money supply rule.
The conclusion is that both the Fed and the ECB have failed. The Fed failed to respond appropriately in 2008 to the increase in the dollar demand. On the other hand the ECB has nearly constantly since 2008/9 failed to increase the money supply and nominal GDP. Not to mention the numerous communication failures and the massively discretionary conduct of monetary policy.
Even though the challenges facing the Fed and ECB since 2008 have been somewhat different in nature I would argue that proper nominal targets (for example a NGDP level target or a price level target) and better operational procedures could have ended this crisis long ago.