Summers: How to Build a US Recovery

Larry Summers on “the crucial questions for American economic policy”:

The Big Freeze part 4: How to build a US recovery, by Larry Summers, FT: Macroeconomists, like medical scientists, use case studies to teach their students about the maladies to which the system is susceptible. For supply shocks and stagflation, the example is the 1970s. The financial dislocations that occur when bubbles burst are illustrated by the Great Depression and Japan’s problems in the 1990s. The importance of central bank credibility in resisting inflation emerges from discussion of the experience of the late 1960s and the 1970s.

What is most remarkable and troubling about our current difficulties is that all these elements – supply shocks, financial dislocations and concern about rising underlying inflation – are present at once. Moreover, the crisis is global in scope. Concerns about recession are spreading from the US to much of the industrialised world. Significant slowdowns appear more likely in a number of emerging markets, with inflation concerns worldwide at their highest level in more than a decade. There is a growing consensus that the west is facing the most serious financial crisis since the second world war.

Perhaps unsurprisingly in the face of so many adverse surprises, the policy debate has become cacophonous. Some emphasise the necessity of the painful adjustments under way, while others urge their mitigation. Some focus on product price inflation, others on asset price deflation as the principal problem. Some focus on assuring that imprudent lending by financial institutions is discouraged, others on assuring that financing for investment by households and businesses remains available. Some focus on slowing market adjustments to prevent panic, others on the need for rapid adjustment of prices to true fundamental levels, even if this is painful in the short run.

Equally unsurprisingly given the chaotic debate, policymaking has become increasingly reactive and erratic, with a growing tendency to repeat traditional errors. While US policymakers have long cited Japan’s indecisiveness with respect to troubled financial institutions, its resort to gimmickry and market manipulation, and its lack of transparency in the management of financial crisis in the 1990s as a negative example, they are increasingly repeating Japan’s errors.

Within the past month, the Treasury has made explicit the implicit guarantee on the $5,000bn (£2,500bn, €3,250bn) balance sheet of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in order to prevent a run on the government-sponsored enterprises while imposing no penalties on shareholders or forcing any changes on management – not even the cessation of dividends.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has sought to make short-selling harder, with the stated objective of raising (many would say manipulating) the stock prices of financial institutions, while some in Congress have proposed to prevent certain investors from going long on commodity futures. Without much sign of official resistance, the global banking industry is pushing for less reliance on market prices and more on managerial judgment in valuing the assets where bad credit and investment decisions have led to hundreds of billions of dollars of losses over the past year.

Setting policy in a more proactive and principled way requires reaching a number of judgments regarding where things currently stand and the likely effects of potential actions or failures to act. In an effort to advance the debate, the remainder of this article poses and provides my answer to what seem to me to be the crucial questions for American economic policy. … […continue reading…]

Originally published at Economist’s View and reproduced here with the author’s permission.