It looks like we are seeing an effort to do a replay of 2008 where we were told that we had to give all the money to the banks or the world would end. Today the story is that we have to bail out the airline, cruise, hotel, and restaurant industries or tens of millions of workers will lose their jobs. Well, the disaster threats were not true in 2008 and they deserve even less credence today.
The story in 2008 was that all our major banks had effectively made themselves insolvent through their own greed and bad judgement. They had made hundreds of billions of dollars worth of mortgage and mortgage related loans that suddenly went bad when the housing bubble burst. If we let the market work its magic, they would have all gone bankrupt.
The banks got the government to lend the money they needed to stay in business, at way below market interest rates, by telling everyone that if they went under, we would be looking at a second Great Depression. There was literally no one who could explain why we would be prevented from doing the same thing that got us out of the first Great Depression (spend lots of money) if the banks went under.
Our payment system would have surely been disrupted in the immediate wake of a wave of bankruptcies, but unlike in the 1930s, we have the FDIC to insure most of our deposits and keep the wheels turning. The initial downturn surely would have been somewhat worse had we gone the no bailout route, but there is no economic reason we could not have quickly lifted the economy out of a downturn with a massive stimulus following a collapse of the major banks. We held the cards and could have dictated the terms of any bailout for the banks.
Unfortunately, this argument was not heard at the time. I remember I wrote a column for the Guardian with the headline “the banks have a gun pointed to their heads and are threatening to pull the trigger.” The paper flipped the headline so that the guns were pointed to our heads.
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