Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Panic of '08: Recession Cause or Effect?

Copyright, The New York Times Company

The financial panics of last September and October will always be part of the story of this recession, just as bank failures are always part of the Great Depression story. But recent research questions the claim that the financial panics themselves contributed to their contemporaneous and severe employment downturns.

In his academic research, Ben S. Bernanke blamed part of the Great Depression of the 1930s on banking panics. And this time last year (at the height of the panic in the commercial-paper market) he was telling President Bush that if “we don’t act boldly, Mr. President, we could be in a depression greater than the Great Depression.” A lot of taxpayer money was spent based on this theory.

Some recent research supports an alternative view: that those financial panics did not cause depressions, but are merely symptoms of deeper economic forces.

The U.C.L.A. economics professor Lee Ohanian’s recent paper has looked at monthly data from the 1930s and finds that bank failures came well after manufacturing establishments had sharply dropped their work hours. Moreover, the banks failing during the initial panics were known to be weak. Whatever brought those weak 1930s banks down had already hit the manufacturing sector hard.

The timing was different in this recession — the largest employment drops seemed to come immediately after the financial panic — but a recent paper by Ravi Jagannathan, Mudit Kapoor and Ernst Schaumburg of Northwestern argues that the coincidence is just as misleading. They argue that the changing global economy — with more employment of residents in developing countries like China — created a glut of savings in those countries, and was destined to reduce employment in developed countries regardless of whether there had been a financial panic.

The foreclosure crisis is not fully behind us, and the time may come again when it looks like “banks are in trouble.” When that time comes, will taxpayers still believe Mr. Bernanke’s theory that they are better off financing bailouts than letting a bank panic run its course?

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