“I believe if the credit markets are not functioning, that jobs will be lost, that our credit rate will rise, more houses will be foreclosed upon, GDP will contract, that the economy will just not be able to recover in a normal, healthy way.” – Ben Bernanke, Fed Chairman, Sept. 23rd, 2008
“that our American economy’s arteries, our financial system, is clogged and if we don’t act the patient will surely suffer a heart attack — maybe next week, maybe in six months, but it will happen.” – Hank Paulson, Secretary of the Treasury, Sept. 23rd, 2008
Even before testimony concluded yesterday on Capitol Hill, reports with headlines like “Bernanke: Recession Certain in Absence of Bailout” and “Bush Administration Tells Congress to Act Quickly or Risk Recession” hit the wire services. Both Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson stated clearly that a recession would occur if the proposed $700 Billion dollar bailout plan were not enacted. Similar threats of recession were used earlier this year when President Bush and Congress enacted a tax rebate stimulus program.
Let me ask a simple question: why is everyone so afraid of a recession? Recessions and boom times are both natural parts of the business cycle in market economies, and the United States experienced twenty recessions (including the Great Depression) in the 20th century alone. Economic downturns, with the associated bankruptcies and layoffs, help trim inefficient investments made at the peak of economic cycles, thus paving the way for the next round of economic growth.
The alternative to business cycles can be found in state-controlled economies, where inability to reallocate capital to new enterprises slows overall economic growth dramatically. Governments presiding over market economies also attempt to tamper with business cycles, and while intervention may soften the landing in a recession, it may also delay the recovery. Japan’s “lost decade” of the 90’s, where poor economic growth was the norm, resulted after Japan’s incredible economic boom of the 80’s. The extraordinary length of Japan’s recovery stemmed partly from the Japanese government’s inability to allow corporate and bank bankruptcies progress at the rate needed to clear out bad loans and start a new economic cycle.
The US would do well to heed Japan’s allegory. Ideally, any intervention in the financial markets should enable orderly collapse and restructuring of businesses overridden with bad debt. No one gains in a financial panic, but an unwinding of the excesses of the US housing bubble is inevitable. Creative Destruction is at the heart of the business cycle, it’s at the heart of the American economy, and it will be necessary in this cycle as well. Let’s not make it take longer than necessary.