The U.S. Financial and Economic Crisis: Where Does It Stand and Where Do We Go From Here?

June 15, 2009


The Obama administration needs to focus on executing its existing financial rescue plans, keep the TARP focused on the banking sector, and create a contingency plan should the banking system destabilize again.

Crystal balls are dangerous, especially when it comes to economic predictions, which is why it is important for the administration to chart a path forward. Public policy must remain focused on the very real possibility that the apparent easing in the economy’s decline may be followed by little or no growth for several quarters and there could possibly be another negative turn. One of the risks is that the United States is very connected to the rest of the world, most of which is in severe recession. The global economy could be a significant drag on U.S. growth.

Cautious optimism should be the order of the day. We fear that the recent reactions of the financial markets and of some analysts carry too much of the optimism without recognizing enough of the uncertainty. There remains a lot of uncertainty and policymakers should not rest on their laurels or turn to other policies, even if they look more exciting. It is vital to follow through on the current financial rescue plans and to have well-conceived contingency plans in case there is another dip down.

We propose three recommendations for the financial rescue plans:

  • Focus on execution of existing programs. The Administration has created programs to deal with each of the key elements necessary to solve the financial crisis. All of them have significant steps remaining and some of them have not even started yet, such as the programs to deal with toxic assets. As has been demonstrated multiple times now since October 2008, these are complex programs that require a great deal of attention. It is time to execute rather than to create still more efforts.
  • Resist the temptation to allocate money from the TARP to other uses—it is essential to maintain a reserve of Congressionally-authorized funds in case they are needed for the banks. It would be difficult to overemphasize the remaining uncertainties about bank solvency as they navigate what will remain a rough year or more. The banks could easily need another $300 billion of equity capital and might need still more. It is essential that the administration have the ammunition readily available.
  • Third, make sure there is a contingency plan to deal with a major setback for the banking system. The plan needs broad support within the administration and among regulators and, ideally, from key congressional leaders. We probably won’t need it, but there is too high a chance that we will require it for us to remain without one. The country cannot afford even the appearance of the ad hoc and changing nature of the responses that were evident last fall.

We also give the administration a thumbs-up for their bank recapitalization as well as the TALF program, while they are much more skeptical of the Treasury’s approaches to toxic assets. The authors also believe it is time to focus on the truly mind-blowing budget deficits given the danger that markets will not be able to absorb the amount of government borrowing needed without triggering a rise in U.S. interest rates and perhaps an unstable decline in the value of the dollar, nor do they believe there should be a another fiscal stimulus except under extreme circumstances.