On March 28,
2007, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke appeared before the congressional
Joint Economic Committee to discuss trends in the U.S. economy. Everyone
was concerned about the substantial correction in the housing market,
he noted in his prepared remarks. Fortunately, the impact on the broader
economy and financial markets of the problems in the subprime market seems
likely to be contained. Better still, the weakness in housing
and in some parts of manufacturing does not appear to have spilled over
to any significant extent to other sectors of the economy. On that
day, the Dow Jones industrial average was above 12,000, the S&P 500
was above 1,400, and the U.S. unemployment rate was 4.4 percent.
looks bad in retrospect, as do many of Bernankes claims through the
rest of the year: that the real-estate crisis was working itself out and
that its problems would likely remain niche issues. If experts
can be this wrongwithin two years, unemployment had nearly doubled,
and financial markets had lost roughly half their valuewhat good is
their expertise? And of course it wasnt just Bernanke, though presumably
he had the most authoritative data to draw on. Through the markets
rise to their peak late in 2007 and for many months into their precipitous
fall, the dominant voices from the government, financial journalism, and
the business and financial establishment under- rather than overplayed the
scope of the current disaster.
With the celebrated
exception of Nouriel Roubini, an economist from the Stern School of Business
of New York University. At just the time Bernanke was testifying about the
contained real-estate problem, Roubini was publishing a paper
arguing that the depressed housing market was nowhere near its bottom, that
its contraction would be the worst in many decades, and that its effects
would likely hurt every part of the economy. In September 2006, with markets
everywhere still on the rise, he told a seminar at the International Monetary
Funds headquarters that the U.S. consumer was just about to burn
out, and that this would mean a U.S. recession followed by a global
hard landing. An economist who delivered a response dismissed
this as forecasting by analogy. The IMFs in-house newsletter
covered Roubinis talk as a curiosity, under the headline Meet
thus enjoying his moment as the Man Who Was Right, a position no one occupies
forever but which he is entitled to for now. As markets have collapsed,
the demand for his views and predictions has soared. He travels constantly,
and late this spring I met him in Hong Kong to ask what he was worried about
is 50, has a tousled look, from his curly black hair to his rumpled clothing.
The initial impression he gave was of total physical exhaustion. ...
see this paralyzing fatigue in people whove recently made the flight
to Asia. What was unusual in Roubinis case is that even with eyes
closed he kept emitting high-speed and complex answers, which proved on
transcription to consist of well-formed sentences and logical sequences.
They were delivered in an accent that is what you might imagine from someone
who spent his first 20-plus years in Turkey, Iran, Israel, and Italy before
going to the United States as a graduate student at Harvard. In a few cases,
I later realized, the polish of his responses was because he was reciting
passages from papers he had written, as if from an invisible teleprompter.
But mostly he seemed to be drawing on data points and implications that
were so much on his mind they could be processed and expressed even when
the rest of him was spent.
was surprising in three ways: for the relatively high grades Roubini gave
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, generally the least-praised member
of the Obama economic team; for the overall support (with one significant
exception) he expressed for the administrations response to the economic
crisis; and for his willingness to look far enough beyond todays disaster
to speculate about the problems a recovery might bring. He was also full
of advice about Chinas reaction to the world financial crisis, including
the suggestion that its options are narrower than its leaders may grasp.
compliments for Geithner were in the context of the intellectual and policy
history of how the crash had developed and why its effects have been so
severe. The dot-com and larger tech-industry crash of 2000 eliminated a
tremendous amount of stockmarket wealth. During the panicky selloff of 1987,
nearly a quarter of the New York Stock Exchanges total value was lost
in one day. By comparison, defaults on subprime mortgages would seem more
limited in their capacity to harm the economy. Why, then, had so much gone
so deeply wrong?
that the difference was partly debt versus equity. That
is, a loss of stockmarket value is damaging, but defaults on loans, which
put banks themselves in trouble, had a multiplier effect: When
theres a credit crunch, for every dollar of capital the financial
institution loses, the contraction of credit has to be 10 times bigger.
This was the process at work last fall, when banks that were concerned about
their own survival cut off working capital to everyone else.
The more important
difference between this crash and others, Roubini said, was that the
speculative bubble involved so much more of the economy than the term subprime
could suggest. It was subprime, it was near-prime, it was prime mortgages,
he said, warming up to rattle off a long list. It was home-equity-loan
lines. It was commercial real estate, it was credit cards, it was auto loans.
The list was just getting started, and he used it to emphasize that
almost every form of borrowing had been taken beyond reasonable limits,
and that most forms of asset had been bid unreasonably high. And
not just in the United States: People talk about the American subprime
problem, but there were housing bubbles in the U.K., in Spain, in Ireland,
in Iceland, in a large part of emerging Europe, like the Baltics all the
way to Hungary and the Balkans, and most parts of the world. Thats
why the transmission and the effects have been so severe. It was not just
the U.S., and not just subprime. It was excesses that led
to the risk of a tipping point in many different economies.
case against Ben Bernanke and his predecessor Alan Greenspan is that
they kept interest rates too low for too longand downplayed the significance
of the bubble they helped create. They kept on arguing that this
was a minor housing slump, and this housing slump was going to bottom out,
he said. They kept repeating this mantra that the subprime problem
was a niche and contained problem. These were
serious analytic errors, he said, of a sort that is common near the end
of a bubble. Bernanke should have known better, but its not
really about him. Its in everybodys interest to let the bubble
go on. Instead of the wisdom of the crowd, we got the madness of the crowd.
the proverbial stuff hit the fan in the summer of 2007, [the Fed and the
Bush administration] were initially taken by surprise, he concluded.
Their analysis had been wrong. And they didnt understand the
severity of what was to come. And all along, their policy was two steps
behind the curve. He was much more respectful of the judgment that
Timothy Geithner showed.
know, when Geithner became president of the New York Fed [late in 2003],
the first eight speeches he gave were about systemic risk, he said.
(Most were about the way the growing complexity and interconnectedness of
financial systems made it harder to know the real degree of risk the entire
financial network was exposed to, and how far regulation was lagging behind
the quickly changing realities. Most read well in retrospect.) Behind this
difference in tone, according to Roubini, was a deeper contrast in belief
about what the government could or should do when it saw a financial bubble
beginning to form.
response once a bubble collapses, most economists are in agreement. Central
banks around the world have been lowering interest rates to near zero and
pumping new money into their economies. But could they have done anything
to forestall the need to? According to Roubini:
like Greenspan, had this wrong attitude toward asset bubbles. The official
philosophy of the Fed was: on the way up with a bubble, you do nothing.
You dont try to prick it or contain it. Their argument was, How do
I really know its a bubble? And even if I tried to prick
a bubble delicately, it would be like performing neurosurgery with a sledgehammer.
done in these boom-and-bust cycles, Roubini says, is greater than politicians
and the media usually acknowledge. Stockmarket averages eventually recover,
as all buy-and-hold investors now keep telling themselves. (Except in Japan,
where the main stock index stood near 39,000 in the late 1980s and
is around 9,000 today.) But that doesnt take into account the
damage done to the real economy by the swings up and down.
asset bubbles are increasingly frequent, increasingly dangerous, increasingly
virulent, and increasingly costly, he said. After the housing bubble
of the 1980s came the S&L crisis and the recession of 1991. After the
tech bubble of the 1990s came the recession of 2001. Most likely $10
trillion in household wealth [not just housing value but investments and
other assets] has been destroyed in this latest crash. Millions of people
have lost their jobs. We will probably add $7 trillion to our public debt.
Eventually that debt must be serviced, and that may hamper growth.
any alternative? Yes, if central bankers had taken a more symmetric
approach to bubbles, trying to control them as they emerged and not
just coping with the consequences after they burst. Geithner, he says,
was one of those who saw the danger: While Ben Bernanke was talking
about a global savings glut as the source of imbalances, Geithner
was talking about Americas excesses and deficits. Like the Bank of
England and the Bank for International Settlements, he was warning at the
New York Fed that we had to be more nuanced in the approach of how you deal
with asset bubbles.
about proper bubble management are of more than historical interest, Roubini
argues, because he sees the beginnings of another bubble already in view.
He was more supportive on the whole than I would have expected about the
Obama administrations financial plans. I have to give them credit
that, less than a month after they came to power, they had achieved three
major policy successes, he said. These were passing the $800 billion
stimulus plan, the mortgage-relief plan to reduce foreclosures, and the
toxic asset plan to help banks clear bad loans from their books.
He said that the initial version of the bank-rescue plan was botched,
because it was rushed, but that the later version was better. On
each of these things, you can criticize specific elements, he said.
But they did the big things, and those are the main parameters of
what is a constructive policy response. For now, you have to deal with the
problem you are facing. All in all I think the policy is going in the
the emergency will be over. Then the side effects of todays deficits-be-damned
efforts to spend money and loosen credit will become the problem you
are facing. Roubini has been tart about the things public officials
should have known and the dangers they should have foreseen three or four
years ago. What, I asked him, are the decisions of 2009 that we will be
regretting in 2012?
For the only
time in our conversation, he sat without responding for a measurable interval.
The regrets could be many, he began. Uh-oh , I thought. Even
the best policies sometimes have unintended consequences. He then
involved banks. Like Paul Krugman and others, Roubini had been warning that
many banks were weaker than they seemed. Rather than trying to nurse them
along, he said, the government should move straightaway to nationalization:
Im concerned that were not going to deal with the bank
problem as we should, he said. Some banks are insolvent. To
prevent them becoming zombie banks, the government should take the problem
by the horns and, on a temporary basis, nationalize them. Take over these
banks, clean them up, and then sell them back to the private sector. Not
doing that is one mistake we may make and regret.
the debt. This sounds similar to the complaint that the government
is spending too much now and will regret it later on, which was the main
Republican argument against the stimulus plans. Roubinis concern is
different, and mainly involves the delicate process of turning off the extraordinary
stimulus measures now being turned on full force.
Fed is now embarked on a policy in which they are in effect directly monetizing
about half of the budget deficit, he said. The public debt is going
up, and the federal government is covering about half of that total by printing
new money and sending it to banks. In the short run, he said,
that monetization is not inflationary. Banks are holding much
of the money themselves; theyre not relending it, so that money
is not going anywhere and becoming inflationary.
But at some
pointRoubinis guess is 2011the recession will end. Banks
will want to lend the money; people and businesses will want to borrow and
spend it. Then it will be time for what Roubini calls the exit strategy,
of mopping up that liquiditypulling some of the money back out
of circulation, so it doesnt just bid up house prices and stock values
in a new bubble. And that will be very, very tricky indeed.
cautionary recent examples. The last time the Fed tried to manage this mopping
up process was after the recovery from the 2001 recession. To minimize
the economic impact of the 9/11 attacks, following immediately on the dot-com
crash, Alan Greenspan quickly lowered the benchmark interest rate from 3.5
percent, reaching 1 percent in 2003. By 2004 a full recovery was under way,
and Greenspan began raising rates at what he called a measured pace25
basis points, or one-fourth of 1 percent, every six weeks. That implied
it would take two and a half years until they normalized the rate,
Roubini said. And that was one of the important sources of trouble,
because at that point money was too cheap for a long time, and it
really fed the bubble in the housing base. So the lesson would be,
when a recovery begins, get rates back to normal, faster.
that is very tricky, he continued, because if you do it too
fast, when the economy is not recovered in a robust way, you might end up
like Japan and slump back into a recession. But, of course, if you do it
too slowly, then you risk creating either inflation or another asset bubble.
The great difficulty of making these fine distinctions is part of the brain
surgery with a sledgehammer argument against attempting to intervene
view, there is no choice but to intervene. We have to do whats
necessary to avoid a real depression, he said. But he added that it
is not too soon to lay plans for avoiding the consequences of too much money
flowing rather than too little.
recently been in China and met officials there. We talked about the
bind that the world economic slowdown had created for Chinas leadershipnot
despite but because of its huge trade surpluses and foreign-currency holdings.
Many Chinese commentators have blamed American overborrowing and excess
for dragging them into a recession. But even they realize that the very
excess of American demand has created a market for Chinese exports. Chinese
leaders would love to be less dependent on American customers; they hate
having so many of their nations foreign assets tied up in U.S. dollars
and subject to the volatility of American stock exchanges. But for the moment,
theyre more worried about keeping Chinese exporters in business. To
do that, they want to prevent their currency from rising. And for reasons
laid out in detail in a previous article (The
$1.4 Trillion Question, January/February 2008 Atlantic), the
mechanics of finance require them to keep buying U.S. dollars and entrusting
their savings to the United States. I dont think even the Chinese
authorities have fully internalized the contradictions of their position,
I agree. But
I can report that for these past six months, virtually every economic conference
Ive heard of in China and every special supplement in a Chinese business
publication has been devoted to the changes the country would have to make
in order to reduce its vulnerabilities.
I asked Roubini
whether, similarly, American authorities and the U.S. public appreciated
the contradictions in their own position. He answered by returning to the
damage caused by boom-and-bust cycles and the need to find a different path.
been growing through a period of time of repeated big bubbles, he
said. Weve had a model of growth based on overconsumption
and lack of savings. And now that model has broken down, because we
borrowed too much. Weve had a model of growth in which over the last
15 or 20 years, too much human capital went into finance rather than more-productive
activities. It was a growth model where we overinvested in the most unproductive
form of capital, meaning housing. And we have also been in a growth model
that has been based on bubbles. The only time we are growing fast enough
is when theres a big bubble.
question is, can the U.S. grow in a non-bubble way? He asked the question
rhetorically, so I turned it back on him. Can it?
we have to
He paused. You know, the potential for our
future growth is going to be lower, because of the excesses weve had.
Sustainable growth may mean investing slowly in infrastructures for the
future, and rebuilding our human capital. Renewable resources. Maybe nanotechnology?
We dont know what its going to be. There are parts of the economy
we can expect to lead to a more sustainable and less bubble-like growth.
But its going to be a challenge to find a new growth model. Its
not going to be simple.
I took this
not as pessimism but as realism.