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Hidden truths about the state of the US economy

23 July 2010

Summary:  What I recommended in Sept 2008.  What the government did.  Results, and how the stimulus has been poorly described to the public.  Where we’re going.  This is the first in a series. The next chapers are What lies ahead for the US economy? the global economy? and Some thoughts on the political implications of a long recession.

Contents

  1. Recap and introduction
  2. Results
  3. What comes next?
  4. Other posts about solutions
  5. Afterward and contact information

(1)  Recap and introduction

After a year of writing warnings, in September 2008 I proposed a package of solutions for the cataclysm about to occur:

  1. A solution to our financial crisis – summary
  2. Stabilize the financial system – Guarantee and lending to banks (nationalize insolvent ones); loans to large and small businesses
  3. Stabilize the economy – fiscal and monetary stimulus
  4. Arrange long-term financing for steps #1 and #2 with our foreign creditors — long-term cures to global imbalances

 The government waited too long to stabilize the financial system, acting only after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, and months later to help large corporations — and never helping small businesses (one cause of the jobless recovery).

Although the Fed quickly applied monetary stimulus, the government waited far too long to apply large-scale fiscal stimulus — doing so only in February 2009 – and then on too-small a scale, in an ineffective manner.

These measures stabilized the economy after a drop in economic activity broadly similar to that of 1929-30, averting a depression.  But economists have misrepresented these measures to the public.  These measures do not “stimulate” the economy, they stabilize it.  They are first aid, not a cure. First aid in the sense of stopping the bleeding and muting the pain — buying time for treatment (for more on this see Government economic stimulus is financial heroin).  But at a cost in added government debt.

Sidenote:  faux economics says that there are immediate or short-term costs to the debt, which is nonsense.  But the debt is a burden, hence the need for the spending to be some combination of…

  • effective in terms of humanitarian benefit and spurring economic activity (e.g.,  food stamps and unemployment insurance)
  • generating long-term benefits, such as useful infrastructure (parks, sewage treatment plants, power/transporation/communication systems).

(2)  Results

After first aid comes a bounce in economic activity, largely due to inventory restocking (after panic-driven liquidations) and restored confidence.  It is not “artificial”, nor does it signal recovery.  The great recession has different causes than the shorter and milder business cycle downturns since WWII, driven by inventory cycles and the Fed’s efforts to control inflation.  See the posts listed at the end for more about this.

This brings us to the great policy failure of the great global recession:  no nation has used this crisis to effect structural reforms, with one exception.  The European Union, which has put into effect a combination of stabilization measures an austerity measures — which almost ignore the underlying causes of the EU’s problems.  But at least they have tried.

As for the rest of the developed nations and China, our fecklessness will become legend.  As I said in May Never waste a crisis. That just makes the next one inevitable and probably worse.  As usual in 21st century American, Rahm Emanuel spoke the truth and has been brutally criticized for it.  We prefer lies and folly.

(3)  What comes next?

The distinguishing characteristic of this cycle is its unpredictability.  Naturally so.  This marks the end of the post-WWII era, and the previous rules and patterns no longer apply.  We have sailed off the map into the dark.  With no moon or stars to guide us.

The next big question:  will there be a second dip to this downturn?  As I said (with more detail) in February, a second dip might be worse than the first (we’re weaker 3 years into this event).

What are the odds of another downturn?  It’s not a useful question.  The current state of economic theory does not allow reliable forecasts, esp in the midst of regime change ( for more this process see A look at the future of the world’s political and economic order).  But the odds are substantial.  My guess is 1 in 3, perhaps even 1 in 2.

What would happen in a second downturn?  We can make some useful guesses.  Turn in next week for more about this.

(4)  Other posts discussing solutions

For links to all posts about the downturn see the FM reference page Financial crisis – what’s happening? how will this end?

  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. Slow steps to nationalizing the US financial sector, 7 April 2008 — How this will change our society.
  3. How should we respond to the crisis?, 24 September 2008
  4. A quick guide to the “Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008″, 29 September 2008
  5. The new President will need new solutions for the economic crisis, 9 October 2008
  6. Results from the IMF meeting – just thin gruel, 12 October 2008
  7. The G-7 meeting was the last chance for action before the global recession, 12 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. Has the US financial system been nationalized?, 28 October 2009
  11. A look ahead to the end of this financial crisis, 30 October 2008
  12. Expect little or nothing from meetings like the G20 – or the Obama Administration, 18 November 2008
  13. Everything you need to know about government stimulus programs (read this – it’s about your money), 30 January 2009
  14. Bush’s bailout plan is now Obama’s. His quiet eloquence guides the sheep into the pen, 30 March 2009
  15. Cash for Clunkers is madness! Let’s expand it to new horizons!, 6 August 2009
  16. Economists discuss the impact of the stimulus on our recession, 6 October 2009
  17. The falling US dollar – bane or boon?, 14 October 2009
  18. Explaining the government’s response to the financial crisis, 3 December 2009
  19. Government economic stimulus is financial heroin, 28 December 2009
  20. A lesson from the Weimar Republic about balancing the budget, 10 February 2010
  21. Why the U.S. cannot inflate its way out of debt, 16 March 2010

(5)  Afterword and contact info

  • For more about this website, see the About the FM website page.
  • You can subscribe to receive posts by email; see the box on the upper right.
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