Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Great Recession

In his NY Times column today, "Bad News, and More Bad News," Clark Hoyt responds to mail that complains of the NY Times writing too much about bad news. He says: "A newspaper's responsibility is not to be an economic cheerleader, but to maintain a level head and help put the world in perspective for readers.

The theme of Mr. Hoyt's column can't be repeated too often, but I have a problem with the sentence that the Public Editor attributes to Times business columnist David Leonhardt:
"[A]s bad as things are, they are still not as bad as the recession of 1982, let alone the Great Depression."
Does Mr. Leonhardt still say that? If so, I would respond that his comparison between today and 1982, which he based on job-market data, is a case of apples and oranges. The reason for the recession that produced high unemployment in 1982 was Fed Chairman Paul Volcker's brave determination to break the back of inflation. In the process he allowed interest rates to soar.

The 1980-82 recession was painful, but recovery was entirely within the control of the Fed, which simply had to ease credit.

Continuing credit problems today are not the deliberate creation of the Fed, which has--on the contrary--eased the target fed funds interest rate down to the "zero bound". To say that 1982 was worse is like someone suffering an angina attack saying that his heart was worse off right after his triple-bypass operation. Not so, because the surgeons then had the situation under control.

A consensus is growing that this recession is the worst downturn since the Great Depression. It's global. it looks only at U.S. data and misses the full extent of the devastation from the credit freeze. The IMF’s Dominique Strauss-Kahn, said on March 10: "I think that we can now say that we've entered a Great Recession."

Prior uses of the term "Great Recession" (which was applied to earlier recessions) have been collected by Catherine Rampell of the NY Times using Nexis and were quoted by World Wide Words. WWW does not mention the prominent March 1 NY Times Op-Ed by economic historian Niall Ferguson.

On December 5, 2008 the U.S. Federal News Service reported: "Some economists are already calling this 'the Great Recession' because they fear it may be longer and deeper than any recession in recent history." As early as April 2008, Former Wall Street Journal writer Jesse Eisinger predicted in Portfolio that: "The next president will take office during what may well come to be known as the Great Recession."

One year ago, in March 2008, I contributed three posts for HuffPost about the Bankers' Panic of 2008. I was focused on regulatory shortcomings and what could be done about them, rather than the likely economic consequences.

A March 10, 2009 poll reports that 53 percent of respondents say the United States is at least somewhat likely to enter a 1930’s-like Depression within the next few years. The Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 39 percent think this outcome is unlikely. The latest results are more pessimistic than those found in early January, when 44 percent said a 1930’s-like Depression was likely. It will be a big challenge to restore positive “animal spirits”. But the poll may be a sign of “blood is in the streets” –- Main Street as well as Wall Street.