Thursday, August 12, 2010

Inept Repairs Leave Economy Stalling

When the Fed's Open Market Committee meets today (Aug 9), its economists will doubtless produce reams of data and theory aiming to explain why GDP growth is fading fast. But there is a very simple - and disturbing - reason why the recovery is sputtering out: The damage we did to our economy during the housing bubble and subprime crisis was far too severe to be fixed by the weak steps our government has taken in response. We tried to cheap out on the repairs to our economy, and they haven't held up.

The leading example is the bank bailout. Only one-third of the TARP funds even went to banks. Instead of using the money to clean the toxic waste out of bank vaults, the Treasury bought just enough bank stock to prop up their share prices. And the money came with almost no stipulations about how the banks could use it.

As a result, the banks aren't back to normal, judging by their anemic lending. Their balance sheets are still stuffed with decaying loans, and they nurse along existing borrowers instead of looking for new ones. Sure, the big banks have all paid back the TARP funds with interest, but so what? Ask the millions of creditworthy people who can't find banks willing to finance their homes or businesses whether the chump change that taxpayers made from TARP was worth it.

Because TARP didn't really fix the banks, the Fed had to step in and take over many of the credit markets they pulled out of, such as commercial paper and mortgage securities. This forced the Fed to use all its financial strength simply to prevent these financial markets from collapsing. That effort used up virtually all the Fed's capacity to do its main job: stimulate the economy.

And then there's the $800 billion stimulus package. Only about one-third of that was actually new spending, which is what it takes to get the economy moving. And this money is spread out over several years, further weakening the power of its economic punch. Another third of the stimulus was in the form of tax cuts, which didn't stimulate the economy because most households used the tax cuts to pay back old loans rather than buy new things. The remaining third mostly tried to replace spending that would have otherwise declined due to unemployment and falling state tax revenues. That is beneficial, but it's no stimulus.

And finally, there is the mortgage relief program. What mortgage relief program, you ask? Exactly. The government bumbled through a series of small and ineffective programs that have created more frustration and dashed hopes than real relief. One of the first steps the government took was to request a voluntary moratorium on foreclosures, which only pushed the foreclosures off to this year. During the moratorium, it tried a voluntary program that refinanced exactly one mortgage during its first six months. The successor program didn't even start until May 2009 and actually tries to avoid reducing the amount the borrower owes. It's no wonder that struggling homeowners would rather negotiate directly with their lenders - or play the default game and stall for time before foreclosure and eviction.

After the buy-now-and-pay-later economy crashed, we chose a buy-now-and-pay-later recovery. Well, it's time to pay. Unfortunately, we can't simply put the programs in place now that we should have implemented back in 2008, such as removing the toxic assets from the banks and passing a true $1 trillion fiscal stimulus. Consumers and firms have moved on, and the economy has changed.

But more importantly, government lost the initiative to take strong action. The Fed committed its resources to supporting the mortgage market. And public sentiment, exemplified by the tea party movement, has turned against further fiscal stimulus. Now we have to pay for the damage by living with lackluster economic growth - maybe years of it.

Will there be a double-dip recession? Probably not - but that would be one of the best things that could happen. The government would once again have reason to take bold action - and get it right this time.

By Connel Fullenkamp 

Connel Fullenkamp is director of undergraduate studies and an economics professor at Duke.

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