Annals of the Great Recession XV.

The TARP and the stimulus bill were intended to recover from the financial crisis of 2008-2009.  What about preventing a re-run in the future?  The Dodd-Frank Act required banks to hold larger capital reserves and to submit to “stress tests” to evaluate how well they could deal with a future financial crisis on the scale of 2008.   Curiously, the law also limited the trade in “credit default swaps.”  Admittedly, the wholesale trade in these insurance policies against a collapse of the bubble seems to have been what sunk the AIG insurance group.  On the other hand, they were an investment by people who saw the bubble for what it was rather than blindly believing what they were told.

One effect of the new legislation appears to be that it has encouraged the consolidation of the banking system.  It has been argued that the costs of complying with the new regulations are more than smaller banks can bear, so they have sold out to already big banks that are better able to shoulder the burden.

It is said that generals are always preparing to fight the last war.  Banks and investors are on guard against sub-prime mortgages.  However, “bubbles” can develop in any asset.[1]  So, some kind of new crisis is always possible.  Can the government and the financial system respond effectively to a new crisis?  The answers are not encouraging.

First, a flight from Keynesian demand-management policies followed quickly on the financial crisis.  President Bush encountered considerable difficulty in getting Republicans to accept the TARP.  President Obama opted for a stimulus bill that Paul Krugman warned was half as big as it needed to be, spread over two years instead of front-loaded into one year, and contained a bunch of tax cuts that would be used to reduce debt instead of engaging in new spending.  Both Republicans and Democrats have proved critical of deficit spending plans.

Second, in the absence of a Keynesian policy on the part of the Congress and President, the Federal Reserve Bank launched a long program of “quantitative easing.”  It bought huge amounts of both MBSs and U.S. treasury debt as a way of pumping money into a slow-recovering economy.  It has only recently begun to unwind this position and to raise interest rates.  That means that it would be difficult to counter a new recession by cutting interest rates.

There may also be a deep hostility to government intervention on the part of many voters.  The policies that saved the American—and world—economy from a new Depression looked very much like a privatization of gains and a socialization of losses.[2]  Thus, in 2007, the top 10 percent of income-earners held 71 percent of the nation’s wealth; now the top 10 percent hold 77 percent.  That is about an 8 percent increase.  The Fed’s quantitative easing pushed up asset prices when ownership of stocks and bonds is concentrated in the upper income groups.

In 2007, the bottom 90 percent of earners held 29 percent of the nation’s wealth; today the bottom 90 percent hold 23 percent.  That is an average 20 percent drop in assets for the vast majority of Americans.  Even so, it is worse for some than for others.  Back in 2007, the median lower-income family had about $18,000 in assets.  Today they have about $11,000 in assets.  Doubtless that fall largely represents the loss of the houses they bought without being able to pay for them.  Would Congress tolerate a new TARP or a new stimulus bill?

Maybe.  The combination of the recent tax revisions and the huge spending bill that enjoyed bipartisan support seem likely to massively expand the deficit.  Maybe stimulus is back in style if you put in enough treats for everyone.  Locking up a bunch of bankers might have to be one of those treats.

[1] See: Alexandre Dumas, The Black Tulip (1850).

[2] President Obama may have contributed to this with his denunciation of the rich as “the people who tanked the economy.”  Bill Gates and Warren Buffett tanked the economy?

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