Chance of a Depression Now 5 Percent

by: Brad DeLong

For 2-1/4 years now I have been saying that there is no chance of a repeat of the Great Depression or anything like it -- that we know what to do and how to do it and will do it if things turn south.

I don't think I can say that anymore. In my estimation the chances of another big downward shock to the U.S. economy -- a shock that would carry us from the 1/3-of-a-Great-Depression we have now to 2/3 or more -- are about 5%. And it now looks very much as if if such a shock hits the U.S. government will be unable to do a d----- thing about it.

We could cushion the impact of another big downward shock by a lot more deficit spending -- unemployment, after all, goes down whenever anybody spends more (even though sometimes falling unemployment comes at too-high a price in rising inflation), and the government's money is as good as anybody else's. But the centrist Democratic legislative caucus has now dug in its heels behind the position that we cannot undertake more deficit spending right now because we have a dire structural health-care financing problem after 2030. The Republican legislative causes has now dug in its heels behind the position that the fact that unemployment is 10% shows not that policy earlier this year was too cautious but rather that it was ineffective. And the Obama administration has not been able or has not tried to move either of those groups out of their current entrenchments.

We could cushion the impact of another big downward shock by recapitalizing the banks again. But the failure of the Fed and the Treasury in the aftermath of Lehman to grab a share of the upside from its capital injection and purchase operations for the public in the form of warrants means that there is no coalition anywhere for a repeat or anything like a repeat of propping-up the banking system: the right thinks it is an unwarranted intervention in the free market, the left thinks that it is a giveaway to the undeserving and feckless superrich, and the center is bewildered because it is an enormous and poorly-structured intervention in the market, it is a giveaway to the undeserving and feckless superrich, and the optics are terrible.

So if another big bad shock hits the U.S. economy, what could the Obama administration possibly do?

Hugh Son of Bloomberg:

Fed ‘Severely Limited’ Savings on AIG, Watchdog Says: n American International Group Inc.’s rescue by refusing to compel banks to take concessions, said a Treasury Department watchdog. The Fed didn’t use its “considerable leverage” as regulator of several of AIG’s counterparties to force them to accept so-called haircuts on credit-default swaps, Neil Barofsky, special inspector for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, said today in a report. The regulator gave up efforts to negotiate discounts from the banks after two days and opted to pay them in full for $62.1 billion in swaps, Barofsky said. “These policy decisions came with a cost -- they led directly to a negotiating strategy with the counterparties that even then-New York Fed President Geithner acknowledged had little likelihood of success,” Barofsky said.

Timothy Geithner, now Treasury secretary, was among officials who took over negotiations with the banks from AIG in November 2008. Lawmakers including Representative Darrell Issa have said the September 2008 AIG rescue was a “backdoor bailout” for banks that received billions in payments. The Fed contacted eight of AIG’s biggest counterparties by telephone last year to negotiate discounts, Barofsky said. While UBS AG, the Zurich-based bank, was willing to make a 2 percent concession, the Fed decided that all counterparties would receive full payment, he said.

‘Misuse’ of Power

In a letter to Barofsky included in his report, the Fed said it “would not have been appropriate to use our supervisory authority on behalf of AIG to obtain concessions from domestic counterparties.” Doing so would have been a “misuse” of power that would have given an advantage to non-U.S. banks that the Fed doesn’t regulate, the Fed said. Andrew Williams, a Treasury spokesman, said in an e-mail statement that Barofsky’s report:

overlooks the central lesson learned from the unprecedented steps taken to support AIG. The federal government needs better tools to deal with the impending failure of a large institution in extraordinary circumstances like those facing us last fall,” Williams said. “It is for these reasons that the Obama administration has proposed a regulatory reform agenda that includes giving the government the emergency authority to resolve a significant, interconnected financial institution...