This year marks the tenth anniversary of the “Great Recession” and the media are trying to determine if we have learned anything from it. The Queen visited the London School of Economics after the “Great Recession” to ask her chief economists why they hadn’t seen this disaster coming. They told her they would get back to her with an answer. Later, they wrote her a letter saying that the best economic theory asserts that recessions are random events and they had successfully predicted that no one can predict recessions.
Still, George Packer, a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine since 2003, thinks he knows more than the LSE academics. He wrote the following in the August 27 print issue:
"It was caused by reckless lending practices, Wall Street greed, outright fraud, lax government oversight in the George W. Bush years, and deregulation of the financial sector in the Bill Clinton years. The deepest source, going back decades, was rising inequality. In good times and bad, no matter which party held power, the squeezed middle class sank ever further into debt...
"In February, 2009, with the economy losing seven hundred thousand jobs a month, Congress passed a stimulus bill—a nearly trillion-dollar package of tax cuts, aid to states, and infrastructure spending, considered essential by economists of every persuasion—with the support of just three Republican senators and not a single Republican member of the House."
Typically, journalists will defer to an expert on matters in which they aren’t trained, which is most subjects. But Packer didn’t bother to ask an economist as the Queen did. Had he done so, he would have received the same answer from mainstream economists – recessions are random events and can’t be predicted. If economists knew the causes of recessions they could predict them when they see the causes present.
So where did Packer get his “causes” for the latest recession? In the classic movie Casablanca, the corrupt and lazy policeman Renault is “shocked” to find gambling going on at Rick’s place and orders the others to round up the “usual suspects.” That’s what Packer does. People have blamed greedy businessmen and bankers for crises for centuries. Since the rise of socialism they added capitalism and the politicians who support it. The only new suspect in the socialist line up is inequality, even though inequality has varied little since 1900 and is near its record low since then.
Had Packer consulted the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, he wouldn’t have received much help. Keep in mind that mainstream economists think recessions are random events. After the storm subsides, they can identify likely contributors for the latest disaster, but those differ with each recession. Recently Chicago Booth queried experts for the top contributing factors of the latest recession. The top answer was flawed regulations, followed by underestimating risk and mortgage fraud.
The “flawed regulations” excuse assumes that bitter bureaucrats who write the regulations are wiser than the actual bankers and ignores the fact that banking is one of the most regulated industries. One analyst described the recent recession as the perfect storm of regulations so massive no one group could understand them all and many of them working against other regulations.
Blaming “underestimated risk” is good Monday morning quarterbacking. Everyone has 20/20 hindsight, or 50/50 as quarterback Cam Newton said. The same economists don’t explain why banks that took similar risks didn’t fail or why what seems risky now didn’t seem so risky in 2007. As for fraud, the amount was negligible and is always there; why did it contribute to a recession this time? Sadly, the correct answer to what caused the Great Recession– “Loose monetary policy” – came in next to last among Chicago Booth’s experts.
Perspective is vital. A magnifying glass can make a lady bug look terrifying. Let’s pull back and put the latest recession in a broader context. There have been 47 recessions/depressions since the birth of the nation. Before the Great Depression economists called crises “depressions” and since then they are “recessions.” They’re the same thing; economists thought “recession” was less scary.
Recessions before the Great Depression were mild compared to it. It took the Federal Reserve and the US government working together trying to “rescue” us to plunge the country into history’s worst economic disaster. Journalists like Packer have convinced people that the Great Recession of 2008 was second only to the Great Depression, but if we combine the recessions of 1981 and 1982, separated only by a technicality and six months, that recession would have been worse. The Fed did not reduce interest rates after that recession because it was still battling the inflation it has caused in the 1970s, yet the economy bounced back and recovery lasted almost a decade.
I want to drive home the fact that the three worst recessions in our history assaulted us after the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913.
The best explanation of the causes of recessions, because it enjoys the greatest empirical support, is the Austrian business-cycle theory, or ABCT. Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek are most famous for refining and expounding it, but the English economists of the Manchester school were the first to write about it. They discovered that expansions of the money supply through low interest rates motivated businesses to borrow and invest at a rapid rate. That launches an unsustainable boom because businesses are trying to deploy more capital goods than exist. Banks raise rates to rein in galloping inflation and the boom turns to dust.
Banks don’t control interest rates today as they did in the past. That’s the Federal Reserve’s job. The Fed generally reduces interest rates or expands the money supply through “quantitative easing,” or buying bonds from banks, in order to force an economy in the ditch to climb out. The recovery from the Great Recession remained on its feet for so long because the Fed’s policy of paying interest on reserves at banks soaked up much of the new money it created out of thin air. Also, much of the money went overseas to buy imports or as investments.
The lesson – don’t ask medical advice from your plumber or economics from a journalist. And if you ask an economist, make sure he follows the Austrian school.