I believe that the probability that we will have a double dip in the economy, a second recession following on the Great Recession, is relatively small and growing smaller all of the time.
The reason that I would give for this is that economies only change directions when there is some kind of shock to expectations. To use the words of one famous pundit with respect to an uncertain future, we just don’t know when something will change with respect to an “unknown” unknown. Even in the cases of “known” unknowns, we know where a change might occur; we just don’t know the magnitude of the change.
A liquidity crisis occurs when something happens in a market, generally a financial market, and the buyers on the demand side of the market decide it is best if they just go out and play a round of golf until the market settles and they know where prices will stabilize. The job of the central bank is to provide liquidity to the market so as to achieve this stabilization of prices. The length of a liquidity crisis is usually no more than four weeks.
A credit crisis occurs when something happens in a market, generally a financial market, and the holders of assets must significantly write down the value of their assets. Banks and other financial organizations may go out of business during the credit crisis because they don’t have sufficient capital to cover all the write downs that must take place. The job of the central bank is to provide stability to the financial markets so that the financial institutions can take their charge-offs in an orderly fashion so as not to cause multiple bank failures. The length of a credit crisis can extend for several years as the financial institutions work off their problem loans and those organizations that have to close their doors do so with the least disruption to “business-as-usual.”
In both cases, something unexpected happens and expectations about asset prices have to be adjusted. Extreme danger exists as long as bankers and investors persist is retaining the old expectations about prices and fail to make the moves necessary to adjust their thinking to a more realistic assessment of the situation. However, as these bankers and investors adjust to the “new reality”, they become more conservative and risk-averse in their decision making and work hard to get asset prices into line with the new financial and economic environment they have to deal with.
As the adjustment to the “new reality” takes place, things remain precarious, but, as long as no new surprises come along, the process of re-structuring can continue to lessen the problem and even strengthen the recovery. This is the state in which the United States is in right now.
The thing that needs to be avoided is a “new surprise.” What this can be of course is “unknown”…an “unknown” unknown.
In the 1937-1938 depression, there was an “unknown” unknown in the form of a policy change at the Federal Reserve System that is credited with “shocking” the financial and economic system into the second depression of the 1930s. The shock here was an increase in the reserves the banking system was required to hold behind deposits in banks, an increase in reserve requirements. The argument given for the increase was that there were a lot of excess reserves in the banking system and for the Federal Reserve to be effective at all during the time, the excess reserves had to be removed: hence the increase in reserve requirements.
The problem was that the banks wanted the excess reserves and with the increase in reserve requirements the banks became even more conservative causing another massive decrease in the money stock. This, of course, has been given as a reason for the “double-dip” that took place in the 1930s.
There are, as is well known, a lot of excess reserves in the banking system at the present time, almost $1.2 trillion in excess reserves. The Federal Reserve knows that they are going to have to remove these reserves from the banking system at some time. Hence, it has developed an “exit” strategy.
Banks and investors know that the Federal Reserve is going to have to remove these reserves from the banking system at some time. How the Fed is going to accomplish its “undoing” is, of course, the big unknown!
The fact that these reserves are going to be removed from the banking system is a “known” unknown!
But, how and when the reduction in reserves is going to take place, not even the Fed knows. Bernanke and the Fed have worked hard to keep the banking system and the financial markets aware of the “undoing” so that although there are still many unknowns connected with this undoing, the fact that the “undoing” is going to be done is a “known.”
The effort here is to avoid a policy “shock” coming from the central bank as in the 1937-1938 experience.
There are a lot of things going on in other sectors of the economy and the world, but these all seem to fit into the category of “known” unknowns: like the problems in Greece and the other PIIGS, Portugal, Italy, Ireland and Spain. There are the problems of states, California, New York, New Jersey, and so on, and municipalities, like Philadelphia and others, but these are also “known.”
There are over 700 commercial banks on the problem list of the FDIC. But these are “known” and are being worked off in an orderly and professional way that seems to be the model of the world. (See the article by Gillian Tett, “Practising the last rites for dying banks.") The FDIC closed seven banks last Friday bringing the total for the year to 33. This is right on my projection of closing at least 3 banks a week for the next 12 to 18 months.
And, what about the United States deficit? Well, I would contend that this is a “known” unknown as well. The deficits over the next ten years or so are projected to be in the range of $9-$10 trillion. I believe that they will be more around $15-$18 trillion, but that is just a minor difference. But, the deficits are “on-the-table” even if the amounts are not quite certain. The deficits will be large and this will be a problem, but they are not going to be a surprise.
This is one reason, I believe, why the Obama administration made the effort they did to talk about the budget deficits publically, particularly with regards to the health care initiative. They are talking about the budget, whether one agrees with their projections or not.
And, just the passage of the health care legislation, I believe, will change the temper of things. This thing has been done and I think just this fact will change the environment…for the better.
There are always “unknown” unknowns lurking. There could be a blow up in the Middle East leading to a full-scale war…or in the east. There could be a political move to boost the price of oil. There could be a lot of things. But, as far as the economy itself and the financial markets: I believe that things are being worked out and things will continue to improve. Thus, the probability of a Double Dip has lessened.