Obama, Geithner Review Of Banks Says Multiyear Period of Economic Weakness Still Ahead

What we’re really seeing here is a decision on the part of President Obama and his officials to muddle through the financial crisis, hoping that the banks can earn their way back to health.

It’s a strategy that might work. After all, right now the banks are lending at high interest rates, while paying virtually no interest on their (government-insured) deposits. Given enough time, the banks could be flush again.

By Paul Krugman
The New York Times

But it’s important to see the strategy for what it is and to understand the risks.

Remember, it was the markets, not the government, that in effect declared the banks undercapitalized. And while market indicators of distrust in banks, like the interest rates on bank bonds and the prices of bank credit-default swaps, have fallen somewhat in recent weeks, they’re still at levels that would have been considered inconceivable before the crisis.

As a result, the odds are that the financial system won’t function normally until the crucial players get much stronger financially than they are now. Yet the Obama administration has decided not to do anything dramatic to recapitalize the banks.

Can the economy recover even with weak banks? Maybe. Banks won’t be expanding credit any time soon, but government-backed lenders have stepped in to fill the gap. The Federal Reserve has expanded its credit by $1.2 trillion over the past year; Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have become the principal sources of mortgage finance. So maybe we can let the economy fix the banks instead of the other way around.

But there are many things that could go wrong.

It’s not at all clear that credit from the Fed, Fannie and Freddie can fully substitute for a healthy banking system. If it can’t, the muddle-through strategy will turn out to be a recipe for a prolonged, Japanese-style era of high unemployment and weak growth.

Actually, a multiyear period of economic weakness looks likely in any case. The economy may no longer be plunging, but it’s very hard to see where a real recovery will come from. And if the economy does stay depressed for a long time, banks will be in much bigger trouble than the stress tests — which looked only two years ahead — are able to capture.

What we’re really seeing here is a decision on the part of President Obama and his officials to muddle through the financial crisis, hoping that the banks can earn their way back to health.

It’s a strategy that might work. After all, right now the banks are lending at high interest rates, while paying virtually no interest on their (government-insured) deposits. Given enough time, the banks could be flush again.

But it’s important to see the strategy for what it is and to understand the risks.

Remember, it was the markets, not the government, that in effect declared the banks undercapitalized. And while market indicators of distrust in banks, like the interest rates on bank bonds and the prices of bank credit-default swaps, have fallen somewhat in recent weeks, they’re still at levels that would have been considered inconceivable before the crisis.

As a result, the odds are that the financial system won’t function normally until the crucial players get much stronger financially than they are now. Yet the Obama administration has decided not to do anything dramatic to recapitalize the banks.

Can the economy recover even with weak banks? Maybe. Banks won’t be expanding credit any time soon, but government-backed lenders have stepped in to fill the gap. The Federal Reserve has expanded its credit by $1.2 trillion over the past year; Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have become the principal sources of mortgage finance. So maybe we can let the economy fix the banks instead of the other way around.

But there are many things that could go wrong.

It’s not at all clear that credit from the Fed, Fannie and Freddie can fully substitute for a healthy banking system. If it can’t, the muddle-through strategy will turn out to be a recipe for a prolonged, Japanese-style era of high unemployment and weak growth.

Actually, a multiyear period of economic weakness looks likely in any case. The economy may no longer be plunging, but it’s very hard to see where a real recovery will come from. And if the economy does stay depressed for a long time, banks will be in much bigger trouble than the stress tests — which looked only two years ahead — are able to capture.

Read it all:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/
08/opinion/08krugman.html?_r=1&hpw

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