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Friday, May 08, 2009

Stiglitz: The Spring of the Zombies

More on "the muddle-through strategy":

The Spring of the Zombies , by Joseph Stiglitz, Commentary, Project Syndicate: As spring comes to America, optimists are seeing "green sprouts" of recovery... The good news is that we may be at the end of a free fall. The rate of economic decline has slowed. The bottom may be near - perhaps by the end of the year. But that does not mean that the global economy is set for a robust recovery any time soon. Hitting bottom is no reason to abandon the strong measures that have been taken to revive the global economy.

This downturn is complex: an economic crisis combined with a financial crisis. Before its onset, America's debt-ridden consumers were the engine of global growth. That model has broken down, and will not be replaced soon. ... The collapse of credit made matters worse; and firms, facing high borrowing costs and declining markets, responded quickly, cutting back inventories. Orders dropped abruptly ...

We are likely to see a recovery in some of these areas... But examine the fundamentals:... real estate prices continue to fall, millions of homes are underwater..., and unemployment is increasing... States are being forced to lay off workers as tax revenues plummet.

The banking system has just been tested to see if it is adequately capitalized - a "stress" test that involved no stress - and some couldn't pass muster. But, rather than welcoming the opportunity to recapitalize, perhaps with government help, the banks seem to prefer a Japanese-style response: we will muddle through.

"Zombie" banks - dead but still walking among the living - are, in Ed Kane's immortal words, "gambling on resurrection." Repeating the Savings & Loan debacle of the 1980's. the banks are using bad accounting... Worse still, they are being allowed to borrow cheaply from the United States Federal Reserve, on the basis of poor collateral, and simultaneously to take risky positions. ...

The American government, too, is betting on muddling through: the Fed's measures and government guarantees mean that banks have access to low-cost funds, and lending rates are high. If nothing nasty happens - losses on mortgages, commercial real estate, business loans, and credit cards - the banks might just be able to make it through... In a few years time, the banks will be recapitalized, and the economy will return to normal. This is the rosy scenario.

But experiences around the world suggest that this is a risky outlook. Even were banks healthy, the deleveraging process and the associated loss of wealth means that, more likely than not, the economy will be weak. And a weak economy means, more likely than not, more bank losses. ...

Fixing the financial system is necessary, but not sufficient, for recovery. America's strategy for fixing its financial system is costly and unfair, for it is rewarding the people who caused the economic mess. But there is an alternative...: a debt-for-equity swap.

With such a swap, confidence could be restored to the banking system, and lending could be reignited with little or no cost to the taxpayer. It's neither particularly complicated nor novel. Bondholders obviously don't like it - they would rather get a gift from the government. But there are far better uses of the public's money, including another round of stimulus. ...

In spite of some spring sprouts, we should prepare for another dark winter: it's time for Plan B in bank restructuring and another dose of Keynesian medicine.

    Posted by on Friday, May 8, 2009 at 12:08 AM in Economics, Financial System, Policy | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (16)


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