Are We Headed for the Next Great Depression?

The Nation has an interesting article that looks at our current economic situation. Although most pundits seem to agree we are in a recession, few consider the more dire possibility of a Depression on the scale of the “Big One” of the 1930s. The author, Jeff Faux, is not convinced that a depression is inevitable, but his analysis of the deregulation of the financial markets that began with Reagan in the 90s convinces me that one is not unthinkable.

Here are some quotes, although I suggest you go here and read the whole article.

This huge pyramid of debt was made possible by thirty years of relentless deregulation of financial markets, culminating in the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which had prohibited banks from dealing in high-risk securities. In effect, Washington regulators became passive enablers to Wall Street’s financial binge drinkers. When they crashed–for example, in the savings-and-loan and junk-bond debacles of the 1980s, the Long-Term Capital Management collapse of 1998 and the Enron and dot-com crashes of the early 2000s–the government cleaned up the mess with taxpayers’ money and let them go back to the bar.

So here we go again. When subprime homeowners stopped paying, the prices of the mortgage-backed securities used as collateral fell. Banks demanded that their borrowers pay up or cover their margins. Panicked selling by borrowers further lowered the securities’ prices, triggering more margin calls and more defaults. Massive losses piled up at places like Citigroup, Countrywide, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley, and cascaded back into the insurance companies. At the end of February, the huge insurer American International Group reported the largest quarterly loss, $5 billion, since the company started in 1919.

In mid-March, after anguished discussions between Federal Reserve officials and Wall Street moguls, the Fed agreed to provide $400 billion in new cash loans to banks and investment firms. Days later came the shock of eighty-five-year-old Bear Stearns going belly up. In an unprecedented deal, the Fed immediately lent JPMorgan Chase the money to buy Bear Stearns, taking suspect mortgage-backed paper as collateral. Bear’s stockholders had already taken a hosing when the stock crashed. The big winners were the company’s creditors and insurers, who were saved from the consequences of their bad business judgment.

We are now staring into the abyss. The Bear Stearns bailout has created a presumption of a safety net under any major stockbroker, in addition to any major bank. Rumors are that Lehman Brothers and Citigroup may be next. The Fed could handle a Lehman crash. But the collapse of Citigroup, the world’s largest bank, would be catastrophic, bankrupting businesses, other banks and consumers and cutting off credit for state and local governments. And it could stretch the Fed to the limit of its resources.

In the Nation article, Faux is giving us a worse case scenario. He agrees, but a reasonable scenario doesn’t sound all that rosy.

But well short of such a worst-case scenario, the country seems headed for major economic damage that will severely test whatever we have left of safety nets. It took five years from the time the recovery began in 1983 for the unemployment rate to return to pre-recession levels. Once we reach the bottom of this trough, it could be a very long time before American consumers, whose spending accounts for some 70 percent of our economy, crawl out of the debt hole and back into the shopping mall. The Japanese have still not recovered from their similar housing/debt crash in the early 1990s.

So, even the best case scenario requires immediate governmental action. But, at this point, the Administration’s plan is a bailout and a hope that the financial institutions will regulate themselves. Bush’s only concern is that we let the market work and avoid “over correcting.”


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