Thursday, August 28, 2014
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Slouching Toward Sanity

BERKELEY – In America today – and in the rest of the world – economic-policy centrists are being squeezed. The Economic Policy Institute reports a poll showing that Americans overwhelmingly believe that the economic policies of the past year have greatly enriched the bankers of Midtown Manhattan and London’s Canary Wharf (they really aren’t concentrated along Wall Street or in the City of London anymore).

In America, the Republican congressional caucus is just saying no: no to short-term deficit spending to put people to work, no to supporting the banking system, and no to increased government oversight or ownership of financial entities. And the banks themselves are back to business-as-usual: anxious to block any financial-sector reform and trusting congressmen eager for campaign contributions to delay and disrupt the legislative process.

I do not claim that policy in recent years has been ideal. If I had been running things 13 months ago, the United States Treasury and Federal Reserve would have let Lehman and AIG fail – but I would have discounted their debt for cash at face value, provided that the debt also came with sufficient equity warrants. That would have preserved the functioning of the system while severely punishing the banking and shadow-banking systems’ equity holders, and today nobody would be claiming that their risk management practices were adequate and did not need reform.

If I had been running things 19 months ago, I would have nationalized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and for the duration of the crisis shifted monetary and financial policy from targeting the Federal Funds rate to targeting the price of mortgages. Ever since 1825, the purpose of monetary policy in a crisis has been to support asset prices to prevent the financial markets from sending to the real economy the price signal that it is time for mass unemployment. Nationalizing Fannie and Freddie, and using them to peg the price of mortgages, would have been the cleanest and easiest way to accomplish that.

Nevertheless, policy over the past two and a half years has been good. A fundamental shock bigger than the one in 1929-1930 hit a financial system that was much more vulnerable to shocks than was the case back then. Despite this, unemployment will peak at around 10%, rather than at 24%, as it did in the US during the Great Depression, while nonfarm unemployment will peak at 10.5%, rather than at 30%. Nor will we have a lost decade of economic stagnation, as Japan did in the 1990’s. Admittedly, the bar is low when making this comparison. But our policymakers did clear it.

It is worth stepping back and asking: What would the world economy look like today if policymakers had acceded to the populist demand of no support to the bankers? What would the world economy look like today if Congressional Republican opposition to the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) program and additional deficit spending to stimulate recovery had won the day?

The only natural historical analogy is the Great Depression itself. That is the only time when (a) a financial crisis caused a widespread, lengthy, and prolonged reinforcing chain of bank failures, and (b) the government neither intervened nor passed the baton to a consortium of private banks to support the system as a whole.

It is now 19 months after Bear Stearns failed and was taken over by JP MorganChase with the assistance of up to $30 billion of Federal Reserve money on March 16, 2008, and industrial production stands 14% below its peak in 2007. By contrast, 19 months after the Bank of the United States, with 450,000 depositors, failed on December 11, 1930 – the first major bank collapse in New York since the Knickerbocker Trust failure during the panic and depression of 1907 – industrial production, according to the Federal Reserve index, was 54% below its 1929 peak.

Opponents of recent economic policy rebel against the hypothesis that an absence of government intervention and support could produce an economic decline of that magnitude today. After all, modern economies are stable and stubborn things. Market systems are resilient webs that offer the best possible incentives to people to make deals and use resources productively. A 54% fall in industrial production between its 2007 peak and today is inconceivable – isn’t it?

If so, then the unavoidable conclusion must be that things would not have been so bad if the government had refused to implement an expansionary fiscal policy, recapitalize banks, nationalize troubled institutions, and buy financial assets in non-standard ways. The problem, though, is that all the theoretical reasons to think that depressions as deep as the Great Depression simply do not happen to market economies applied just as well to the 1930’s as they do to today.

But it did happen. And it could have happened again.

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