Nationalization of US Credit Markets: Where Is the Analysis?
| Peter Klein |
Over and over during the last week we’ve been told that unless Congress, the Treasury, and the Fed take “bold action,” credit markets will freeze, equity values will plummet, small businesses and homeowners will be wiped out, and, ultimately, the entire economy will crash. Such pronouncements are issued boldly, with a sort of Gnostic certainty, a little sadness for dramatic effect, and only minor caveats and qualifications.
And yet, details are never provided. The analysis is conducted entirely at a superficial, almost literary, level. “If the government doesn’t act then banks will be afraid to lend, and people can’t get credit to buy a house or expand their business, and the economy will tank.” Unless we rescue these particular financial institution, in other words, a massive contagion effect will swamp the entire economy. But how do we know this? We don’t. First, we don’t even know if there is a “credit crunch.” Nobody has bothered to provide any empirical evidence. Second, even if credit markets are tight, does it matter? Any predictions about the long-term effects are, of course, purely speculative. Sure, borrowers like cheap and easy credit and tighter credit markets will leave some borrowers worse off. But what are the magnitudes? What are the likely effects on the economy as a whole? (Possibly zero.) What are the possible scenarios, what is the likelihood of each, and how large are the expected effects? Where is the cost-benefit analysis? After all, the seizure of Fannie and Freddie, the takeovers of AIG and WaMu, the modified Paulson plan — the effective nationalization of the US financial sector, in other words — ain’t exactly costless. There are direct costs, of course, to be borne by taxpayers, but the possible long-term effects brought about by increased moral hazard, regime and policy uncertainty, and the like are enormous. Even on purely utilitarian grounds, the arguments offered so far are tissue-paper thin.
Perhaps the dopiest remark I heard today was from Jamie Galbraith on the Diane Rehm show. “I’m a risk-averse person, and the risk of doing nothing is too great.” Huh? Um, shouldn’t a risk-averse person compare the risk of doing nothing with, well, the risk of doing something? Jamie, are the provisions of the bill making its way through Congress this morning risk free?