AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Well, even if it's not a true record, the stock market's long climb from its recession bottom has some people concerned. They're worried a bubble may be about to burst, a bubble artificially pumped up by Federal Reserve policy. As NPR's John Ydstie reports, that's led to calls even from within the Fed for an end to the Central Bank's extraordinary efforts to keep interest rates low.
JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: Even as the Dow is reaching its nominal record yesterday, Jeffrey Lacker, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, continued his criticism of the Central Bank's massive intervention, calling it unhealthy. Another regional Fed president, Charles Plosser of Philadelphia, told a gathering of Pennsylvania businessmen that the Fed's easy money policy could cause financial instability and inflation. Plosser said it's time for Fed policymakers to begin winding down their efforts to lower interest rates. Randall Kroszner, a former Fed policymaker, now a professor at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business says as the economy heals, the debate over Fed policy is healthy.
RANDALL KROSZNER: The fundamentals are certain to come back. And I think there's a legitimate debate on whether more needs to be done.
YDSTIE: But is the Fed's low interest rate policy causing a bubble in the stock market? After all, there are still lots of things wrong with the economy. It's still growing very sluggishly, not fast enough to bring down the unemployment rate which remains very high. Alan Blinder, whose book "After the Music Stopped" deals with the financial crisis and the Fed's extraordinary intervention, doesn't think there's a stock bubble. But Blinder, who's a former vice chairman of the Fed, says the Central Bank's low interest rate policy has pushed the market higher.
ALAN BLINDER: Stock prices are supposed to depend on earnings and interest rates, and the Fed has made interest rates very low. But the other part of it is earnings are very high. You may have noticed that the share of national income accounted for by corporate profits has recently hit all-time highs.
YDSTIE: Blinder says with company profits that high, it's hard to make a case that their share prices are too high and there's a bubble developing in stocks. And Blinder says higher stock prices fit in with the Fed's growth strategy.
BLINDER: To gently nudge, or maybe not so gently nudge, people into taking a little risk instead of putting all their money in treasury bills and under the mattress.
YDSTIE: There are also worries that there's a bubble developing in corporate bonds. And it's true. Investors have driven corporate bond prices very high. But Blinder says it's hard to consider that a bubble because it's obvious why it occurred. The Fed's policies have driven rates so low on government bonds that investors are chasing the higher yields on corporate bonds. But Blinder says they know the Fed's extreme policy won't last forever.
BLINDER: So at some point, these bond prices have to come down as interest rates go up. And again, everybody knows that but, of course, nobody knows the timing. Even Ben Bernanke doesn't know the timing.
YDSTIE: But when is the right time for the Fed to start to discourage the risk-taking party fueled by its low interest rates or take away the spiked punch bowl as the old analogy goes? That was on former Fed chairman Paul Volcker's mind when he spoke to the National Association for Business Economics in Washington on Monday.
PAUL VOLCKER: Because it's never popular to take the so-called punch bowl away or to weaken the liquor. And there's a lot of liquor out there now.
VOLCKER: Mechanically, yeah. Sure, it can be done. They put it in, they can pull it out. Will it be done at the crucial time in a delicate kind of way? It's going to be a big challenge.
YDSTIE: The Fed raised interest rates too soon in the 1930s and smothered the economy. It moved too late in the 1970s and damaging inflation resulted. At least this Fed can learn from those mistakes. John Ydstie, NPR News.