FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Bank Bailout of 2008 was Unnecessary

Photo Source Xavier | CC BY 2.0

This week marked 10 years since the harrowing descent into the financial crisis — when the huge investment bank Lehman Bros. went into bankruptcy, with the country’s largest insurer, AIG, about to follow. No one was sure which financial institution might be next to fall.

The banking system started to freeze up. Banks typically extend short-term credit to one another for a few hundredths of a percentage point more than the cost of borrowing from the federal government. This gap exploded to 4 or 5 percentage points after Lehman collapsed. Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke — along with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Bank of New York President Timothy Geithner — rushed to Congress to get $700 billion to bail out the banks. “If we don’t do this today we won’t have an economy on Monday,” is the line famously attributed to Bernanke.

The trio argued to lawmakers that without the bailout, the United States faced a catastrophic collapse of the financial system and a second Great Depression.

Neither part of that story was true.

Still, news reports on the crisis raised the prospect of empty ATMs and checks uncashed. There were stories in major media outlets about the bank runs of 1929.

No such scenario was in the cards in 2008. Unlike 1929, we have the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The FDIC was created precisely to prevent the sort of bank runs that were common during the Great Depression and earlier financial panics. The FDIC is very good at taking over a failed bank to ensure that checks are honored and ATMs keep working. In fact, the FDIC took over several major banks and many minor ones during the Great Recession. Business carried on as normal and most customers — unless they were following the news closely — remained unaware.

Had bank collapses been more widespread, stretching the FDIC staff thin, it is certainly possible that there would be glitches. This could have led to some inability to access bank accounts immediately, but that inconvenience would most likely have lasted days, not weeks or months.

Following the collapse of Lehman Bros., however, the trio promoting the bank bailout pointed to a specific panic point: the commercial paper market. Commercial paper is short-term debt (30 to 90 days) that companies typically use to finance their operations. Without being able to borrow in this market even healthy companies not directly affected by the financial crisis such as Boeing or Verizon would have been unable to meet their payroll or pay their suppliers. That really would have been a disaster for the economy.

However, a $700-billion bank bailout wasn’t required to restore the commercial paper market. The country discovered this fact the weekend after Congress approved the bailout when the Fed announced a special lending facility to buy commercial paper ensuring the availability of credit for businesses.

Without the bailout, yes, bank failures would have been more widespread and the initial downturn in 2008 and 2009 would have been worse. We were losing 700,000 jobs a month following the collapse of Lehman. Perhaps this would have been 800,000 or 900,000 a month. That is a very bad story, but still not the makings of an unavoidable depression with a decade of double-digit unemployment.

The Great Depression ended because of the massive government spending needed to fight World War II. But we don’t need a war to spend money. If the private sector is not creating enough demand for workers, the government can fill the gap by spending money on infrastructure, education, healthcare, child care or many other needs.

There is no plausible story where a series of bank collapses in 2008-2009 would have prevented the federal government from spending the money needed to restore full employment. The prospect of Great Depression-style joblessness and bread lines was just a scare tactic used by Bernanke, Paulson and other proponents of the bailout to get the political support needed to save the Wall Street banks.

This kept the bloated financial structure that had developed over the last three decades in place. And it allowed the bankers who got rich off of the risky financial practices that led to the crisis to avoid the consequences of their actions.

While an orderly transition would have been best, if the market had been allowed to work its magic, we could have quickly eliminated bloat in the financial sector and sent the unscrupulous Wall Street banks into the dust bin of history. Instead, millions of Americans still suffered through the Great Recession, losing homes and jobs, and the big banks are bigger than ever. Saving the banks became the priority of the president and Congress. Saving people’s homes and jobs mattered much less or not at all.

This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

More articles by:

Dean Baker is the senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. 

Weekend Edition
February 15, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Matthew Hoh
Time for Peace in Afghanistan and an End to the Lies
Chris Floyd
Pence and the Benjamins: An Eternity of Anti-Semitism
Rob Urie
The Green New Deal, Capitalism and the State
Jim Kavanagh
The Siege of Venezuela and the Travails of Empire
Paul Street
Someone Needs to Teach These As$#oles a Lesson
Andrew Levine
World Historical Donald: Unwitting and Unwilling Author of The Green New Deal
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Third Rail-Roaded
Eric Draitser
Impacts of Exploding US Oil Production on Climate and Foreign Policy
Ron Jacobs
Maduro, Guaidó and American Exceptionalism
John Laforge
Nuclear Power Can’t Survive, Much Less Slow Climate Disruption
Joyce Nelson
Venezuela & The Mighty Wurlitzer
Jonathan Cook
In Hebron, Israel Removes the Last Restraint on Its Settlers’ Reign of Terror
Ramzy Baroud
Enough Western Meddling and Interventions: Let the Venezuelan People Decide
Robert Fantina
Congress, Israel and the Politics of “Righteous Indignation”
Dave Lindorff
Using Students, Teachers, Journalists and other Professionals as Spies Puts Everyone in Jeopardy
Kathy Kelly
What it Really Takes to Secure Peace in Afghanistan
Brian Cloughley
In Libya, “We Came, We Saw, He Died.” Now, Maduro?
Nicky Reid
The Councils Before Maduro!
Gary Leupp
“It’s All About the Benjamins, Baby”
Jon Rynn
What a Green New Deal Should Look Like: Filling in the Details
David Swanson
Will the U.S. Senate Let the People of Yemen Live?
Dana E. Abizaid
On Candace Owens’s Praise of Hitler
Raouf Halaby
‘Tiz Kosher for Elected Jewish U.S. Officials to Malign
Rev. William Alberts
Trump’s Deceitful God-Talk at the Annual National Prayer Breakfast
W. T. Whitney
Caribbean Crosswinds: Revolutionary Turmoil and Social Change 
ADRIAN KUZMINSKI
Avoiding Authoritarian Socialism
Howard Lisnoff
Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Anti-immigrant Hate
Ralph Nader
The Realized Temptations of NPR and PBS
Cindy Garcia
Trump Pledged to Protect Families, Then He Deported My Husband
Thomas Knapp
Judicial Secrecy: Where Justice Goes to Die
Louis Proyect
The Revolutionary Films of Raymundo Gleyzer
Sarah Anderson
If You Hate Campaign Season, Blame Money in Politics
Victor Grossman
Contrary Creatures
Tamara Pearson
Children Battling Unhealthy Body Images Need a Different Narrative About Beauty
Peter Knutson
The Salmon Wars in the Pacific Northwest: Banning the Rough Customer
Binoy Kampmark
Means of Control: Russia’s Attempt to Hive Off the Internet
Robert Koehler
The Music That’s in All of Us
Norah Vawter
The Kids Might Save Us
Tracey L. Rogers
Freedom for All Begins With Freedom for the Most Marginalized
Paul Armentano
Marijuana Can Help Fight Opioid Abuse
Tom Clifford
Britain’s Return to the South China Sea
Graham Peebles
Young People Lead the Charge to Change the World
Matthew Stevenson
A Pacific Odyssey: Around General MacArthur’s Manila Stage Set
Jill Richardson
Suddenly, It’s Completely Normal for Women to Run for President
B. R. Gowani
Starbucks Guy Comes Out to Preserve Billionaire Species
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail