“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Costs of the bank bailout

Japan was the first of the industrial economies to emerge from the Great Depression. This was due to many factors: getting off the Gold standard, Keynesian-like government policies to drive up private demand, and of course the expansion of the Japanese Imperial Military, which combined with the industrial cartels – the zaibatsu – to revamp Japan’s industrial base.

Of course, these Japanese policies had a cost: war in China, millions dead, the war in the Pacific, the bombing of Japan, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, etc.

But the technocrat and his followers simply bracket the paltry negative externalities.

I thought about those externalities reading John Cassidy’s assessment of Lawrence Summers stint as Obama’s economic guru in the New Yorker. Now, I like John Cassidy, but here he gives vent to the sort of praise for ‘saving the system’ that, of course, takes it as unquestioned that the system should be saved. More, that is blind to the consequences of saving the system.

You can tell the apologetics are going to start when we are told – as the liberal venders of Obama’s dog food love to tell us – that TARP will make a profit. This, of course, is like saying I can make a profit by lending you, with one hand, a thousand dollars at five percent interest, and with the other hand, lending you one hundred thousand dollars at zero percent interest. We know why TARP was repaid – basically, the Fed took 3 to 6 trillion dollars and injected it at superlow interest rates into the financial system.

John Cassidy himself knows this. But he doesn’t know how much it cost the system – the system of democratic governance – to operate in the highhanded, semi-legal, and plutocratic way that “saved’ us from Depression. In fact, he doesn’t consider it. This is the way he defends Summers – long quote:

“Let’s be honest, though. Back in late 2008, President Obama didn’t bring in Summers for his television face or his ability to make nice with David Brooks and George Will. With the credit markets frozen and the economy in free-fall, the President-elect ignored the counsel of some of his campaign advisers and hired the controversial professor to guide him in the right policy direction. Did Larry do that? Ultimately, this is the criterion on which he deserved to be judged.
With the unemployment rate still close to ten per cent, the consensus view, as reflected in the results of the midterms, is that President Obama’s economic policies have failed. But think back to the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and what could have happened. Between September, 2008, and April, 2009, the stock market fell more sharply than in the six months after Black Tuesday in 1929. Global trade declined more rapidly than in the first year of the Great Depression. Companies were shedding jobs at a rate of seven hundred thousand a month.

Summers, to his eternal credit, was one of the first mainstream economists to understand what was happening. The carnage on Wall Street had unleashed a series of vicious cycles, which were wreaking havoc throughout the economy. In the financial markets, falling asset prices were leading to margin calls and more forced selling. In the housing market, the rush of foreclosures meant there were more unsold homes on the market, which was putting more downward pressure on prices. And on Main Street, ordinary Americans, shocked at the sight of Wall Street imploding, were spending less and saving more, which, in turn, was prompting firms to lay off more workers.

To anybody running a business or managing a Wall Street trading desk (or anybody who knew their Keynes), the downward spiral was glaringly obvious. But many academic economists couldn’t or wouldn’t see it. They remained committed to the view of the economy as a self-equilibrating mechanism that would rebound of its own accord. Some economists criticized the Fed and the Treasury Department for doing too much to help Wall Street. Others argued against an aggressive stimulus program, saying it was unnecessary. In his column in the Financial Times, and later, in internal Administration debates, Summers vigorously supported both of these policies, which did, eventually, halt the downward spiral.

“Had it not been for President Obama’s willingness to support a sufficiently aggressive response—from the late stage of the presidential campaign to his first days and months in office—I have little doubt that we would be looking at a vastly different world today,” Summers said in his remarks to the Economic Policy Institute. “His stalwart advocacy of efforts to support the economy through the Recovery Act, to rescue the financial system, to ensure the health of key industries, and to maintain stability in the global system halted the vicious cycles in less time and at less cost than virtually anyone thought possible.”

Yes, these remarks were self-serving. As far as I can see, though, they are an accurate statement of the historical record. The blanket government guarantee to the financial sector stemmed the panic selling on Wall Street. Rock-bottom mortgage rates and various anti-foreclosure programs put something of a bottom on house prices. And the $787 billion federal stimulus program helped offset falls in spending on the part of consumers, corporations, and state and local governments. Yes, we can argue about the precise impact of the stimulus on spending and jobs, but it defies the laws of arithmetic to argue, as some prominent conservative economists do, that it had no effect at all. (As for the critique from the left—that the stimulus program was too small—in retrospect, it may well be correct. But I doubt a few hundred billion dollars of extra spending over three years would have made much difference to the economy’s overall path.)

And what was the cost of these policies? The hated TARP bailout will almost certainly turn a small profit for the taxpayer. The stimulus program raised the deficit, but not by as much as many people think. The recession caused most of the increase: spending on unemployment benefits and other social programs increased, and tax revenues plummeted. (Perhaps the biggest cost of the monetary and fiscal rescue packages is a largely invisible one related to the Fed’s emergency lending programs. In extending cash to to virtually anybody and everybody at near-zero interest rates during the height of the financial crisis, the Fed has created the expectation that it will do the same thing next time around—an expectation that is sure to influence behavior in the years ahead.)”


We can start with a sentence in the last paragraph to find the error in this analysis – “in extending cash to virtually anybody and everybody…” No, that should read – “in extending cash exclusively to the biggest banks and the heart of the financial casino industry…’ For the government somehow missed extending loans at 0.07 percent to, say, 80 percent of the American public. In reality, doing so would have allowed them to exchange their old debts – at whacked out interest – for new ones at such low interest that they could breath, maybe save the house, maybe stay in college, etc.

This did not happen. And the system that was ‘saved’ is the system as Bushonomics created it, circa 2007 – poorly regulated, one of the most ghastly inefficient ways to transfer capital to socially valuable investment ever created, a monster that only a rentseeker could love. Politically, these moves set back ‘progressive’ politics – the kind of hopy-changyness that seem to hover like tinkerbell over Obama’s rhetoric – for a generation. Instead of a gamechanging moment in which we could reverse the vicious corruption of politics and the dynamic of income and wealth inequality that is squeezing the American public to death, we … had the Summers sit on our face.

The inability to see the larger damage of the government’s urge, in 2008-2009, to save the very richest people in the world is the inability to see beyond the economic order, such as it was, in 2007. Japan’s policies that got them out of the depression gave them a good ten years – which were harsh on millions of Chinese, of course. But eventually these policies had other negative effects – the death of millions of Japanese and the destruction of all Japanese cities. Sometimes, cleverly saving the system so that the numbers are shiny – look at that commercial paper unfreezing! – is not really clever at all.

I’m not sure where the bottom on housing prices is leading us, incidentally. Surely Cassidy is being a tad optimistic. Summers presided over an economic policy that has resulted in a once in a generation loss of wealth to most American families, which Edward Wolff estimates at 36 percent – meanwhile, the upper one percent income bracket dropped 11 percent. In other words, Summersian policy was more than 3 times beneficial to the wealthiest than to the rest of the country.
But the numbers only indicate a great cultural disaster. The dropping of all pretences about who is worthy and who is unworthy in the U.S. can’t simply be wished away by those looking at how the place is governed, how everyday life goes on, the amount of real liberty people have. At these qualitative costs will eventually tell.

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