A warning from Paul Krugman of what should be blindingly obvious (but is not obvious to many experts)

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Pluto asks here:  “what does Fabius think of Paul Krugman’s article in the NYT?”

Here is the article he mentions:  “Fighting Off Depression“, Paul Krugman, op-ed in the New York Times, 4 January 2009 — Excerpt:

“If we don’t act swiftly and boldly,” declared President-elect Barack Obama in his latest weekly address, “we could see a much deeper economic downturn that could lead to double-digit unemployment.” If you ask me, he was understating the case.

The fact is that recent economic numbers have been terrifying, not just in the United States but around the world. Manufacturing, in particular, is plunging everywhere. Banks aren’t lending; businesses and consumers aren’t spending. Let’s not mince words: This looks an awful lot like the beginning of a second Great Depression.

… Here’s my nightmare scenario: It takes Congress months to pass a stimulus plan, and the legislation that actually emerges is too cautious. As a result, the economy plunges for most of 2009, and when the plan finally starts to kick in, it’s only enough to slow the descent, not stop it. Meanwhile, deflation is setting in, while businesses and consumers start to base their spending plans on the expectation of a permanently depressed economy – well, you can see where this is going.

It’s not a bad article, as a statement of the by-now blindingly obvious (about which Krugman has repeatedly warned).  Readers of this site knew this several months ago.  Here are excerpts from posts on the FM site, which new readers might find of interest.

The US economy at Defcon 2, 11 March 2008   {Note:  we did almost nothing}:

As a result of #1 (deleveraging}, our financial fabric is ripping. Weak links have been breaking one by one over the past year or so. As each link breaks, there is more stress on the remaining links. The tear is getting longer and wider due to several positive feedback loops. In general, everybody’s (households’, businesses’, investors’ and creditors’) tolerance for risk decreases, and the inevitable reactions slow the economy.

… Massive government intervention must occur soon, or the eventual cost of mitigation will rise several fold. The current tools of fiscal and monetary stimulus plus mild intervention (the “super SIV’ and “Hope Now” plans) are grossly inadequate to the scale of the problem. But this downturn may be evolution in action, the consequences of our past actions. If so, what damage will the government do attempting to prevent the inevitable?

A solution to our financial crisis, 25 September 2008   {Note:  we did almost nothing}:

The policy response of our leaders has been inadequate, up to and including the Paulson Plan. Their actions have been incremental and reactive in nature. While each step has been larger than its predecessor, all have been reactions to the past dimension of the crisis — not the future. That is, our leaders have been “behind the curve.”

Paulson and Bernanke have taken actions that would have been effective if applied 2 or 3 quarters earlier. Borrowing a metaphor from emergency medicine, they have squandered the “golden hour“, since the crisis started with the collapse of the mortgage brokers in December 2006.

Correcting this flawed procedure is the first step. Doing so at this late date will require immediate and drastic actions. The severe effects of the recession — now affecting the developed nations, perhaps soon the entire world — will soon be felt, further destabilizing the economy and the financial system.

Recommendations (click links for more information about each)

  1. Stabilize the financial system.  (first aid)
  2. Stabilize the economy.   (emergency medicine)
  3. Arrange long-term financing for steps #1 and #2 with our foreign creditors.  (finance the treatment)

The last opportunity for effective action before disaster strikes, 3 October 2008    {Note:  we did almost nothing}:

The end of the post-WWII debt supercycle started with the collapse of the mortgage brokers in December 2006. Since then the government has made aprox 15 initiatives to stop the deterioration of our financial system. The super SIV, 3.25% in cuts to the federal funds rate, FHA Secure, Hope Now, a $120 billion tax rebate, massive expansion of access to the Fed’s discount “window”, TAF auction, TSLF, PDCF, the Bear Stearns bailout, the nationalization of the GSE’s and AIG … and now the TARP (aka the Paulson Plan). Don’t bother looking up the acronyms, they will all soon be forgotten.

All too small, too late. Incremental and reactive, responding to critical problems of last month — irrelevant to the current situation. This is a recipe for disaster. Like in the US 1929-1933 and Japan 1989-1996 — delaying the necessary large-scale response until the problem was no longer manageable.

Now the US financial system is seizing up. The machinery remains, but the gears no longer turn. Most of you have no idea to what I am referring, but you will learn over the next few weeks. To use a bad medical analogy, the financial system has had a cardiac arrest.

The new President will need new solutions for the economic crisis, 9 October 2008:

However, we must prepare for the possibility that the economy will be in a severe recession — or even depression — when the new President takes office in January. A depression does not mean like the 1930’s — the Great Depression. There is a large gap — usually ignored by analysts — between the severe post-WWII recessions (1973-75 and 1980-82) and the horror of the 1930’s. The frequent depressions of the late 1800’s lie in that gap, and for various technical reasons we may now be experiencing one of those.

… The new President must be prepared to immediately take action after inauguration. There is no time for the usual drill: search for staff, redecorate the Oval Office, have meet-and-greets so the new officials get to know each other, schedule meetings to formulate a plan and build support. The damage to the economy will be terrible by that time these things are completed, and (worst case) the economy still might be sliding downwards. Also, any plans will require time for Congressional approval and implementation, and plus lag times until results appear.

Then there is is the bad news. The conventional solutions which the new Administration could easily put into effect — fiscal and monetary stimuli, plus devaluation of the dollar to stimulate exports — probably will not work (in the sense of sparking a recovery of the economy). Let’s defer the reasons why until a later post, and consider the implications.

… These are {recommendations for President Obama} to do, not arranged in a sequential order. … We do not know if these things are even possible, esp (2). An unprecedented crisis requires extraordinary responses.

Status report on the financial crisis: we’re at a critical point in time, 10 October 2008    {Note:  we did almost nothing}:

An economic downturn has 3 stages, each with a different goal.

  1. First Aid — Stabilize the financial system to avoid a depression.  {UPDATE: TOO LATE; WE MISSED THIS WINDOW}
  2. Treatment — apply fiscal and monetary stimuli to mitigate suffering during the recession and get a global recovery in 2010.
  3. Recovery — restructuring and reforms to prepare for the expansion after 2010, and the new world beyond that.

Yes, 2010 is the earliest reasonable date for a recovery IMO from the most severe global downturn since WWII. Policy errors could length the downturn, of course.

The economy is in shock. The effects of this will soon become visible, 11 October 2008    {Note:  we did almost nothing}:

This is like Cardiogenic shock, caused by the failure of the heart to pump effectively. The US economy went into cardiac arrest early last week, as the flow of money (the blood” of the economy) slowed due to a near-collapse of the financial system (its “heart”, but not its soul). If not restarted, the economy will slide into a depression (GDP decline of 10% or more) in a few weeks (perhaps months).

The coming collapse in business spending – made visible today, 15 October 2008:

Smart managers react quickly and strongly to changed conditions. Unfortunately, when those conditions are a systemic event visible and affecting everyone their actions re-enforce the event. Positive feedback. This creates much of the business cycle’s volatility, the big swings. The “dampeners” of Keynesian economics, contra-cyclical monetary and fiscal policy, fight these in order to maintain equilibrium.

The US economy must go to Defcon 1, 13 November 2008  {Note:  we did almost nothing}:

Summary: We are on the brink of an economic disaster like nothing since the 1930’s. Here is a sketches (nothing more), of guesses as to what we can look forward to. While the past guesses on this site have proven accurate, these might prove too pessimistic. Or too optimistic.

… {After the financial crisis} the effects ripple from the virtual economy (financial markets) to the real economy. Americans have reduced their spending. Hundreds of companies around the world have announced falling revenue — and responded with cutbacks in employment and capital expenditures. Tens of thousands are doing the same, but outside the media spotlight. Most of this will hit in the early months of 2009. We must move the US to Defcon One, a war-like mobilization of resources.

Situation report: global economy, December 2008, 19 December 2008:

Viewpoints about the crisis have coalesced into three camps.

  1. The “normal global recession” camp. Just another cycle, US GDP down perhaps -3% peak to trough.
  2. The “worst recession since the 1930’s” camp. A bad scene, but the world’s governments are now on the job. Fiscal and monetary policy will do the job, again. US GDP down 5% or so. See this example.
  3. The “worse than worst” scenario. Government policy might not work — or it might work but only with long lags. Uncertainty rules; the outcome is unknowable.

Those in the first two camps believe that the worst of the crisis has passed in that its course now runs in familiar channels. The small minority in the third camp believes that the world has changed. The post-WWII is ending.

Afterword

If you are new to this site, please glance at the archives below.  You may find answers to your questions in these.

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp relevance to this topic:

Post on the FM site discussing solutions to this crisis:

  1. A happy ending to the current economic recession, 12 February 2008 – The political actions which might end this downturn, and their long-term implications.
  2. How should we respond to the crisis?, 24 September 2008
  3. A solution to our financial crisis, 25 September 2008
  4. The last opportunity for effective action before disaster strikes, 3 October 2008
  5. Effective treatment for this crisis will come with “The Master Settlement of 2009″, 5 October 2008
  6. Dr. Bush, stabilize the economy – stat!, 7 October 2008
  7. The new President will need new solutions for the economic crisis, 9 October 2008
  8. A brief note about our financial system: Intermediation, disintermediation, and soon re-intermediation, 16 October 2008
  9. New recommendations to solve our financial crisis (and I admit that I was wrong), 23 October 2008
  10. A look ahead to the end of this financial crisis, 30 October 2008
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Originally published at Fabius Maximus and reproduced here with the author’s permission.