A call to personal responsibility and market forces

Getting Out of the Credit Mess - The last thing we need is policy that encourages or incurs more debt


The intellectual start of this mess was in a flawed Boston Federal Reserve study published in 1992 that purported to show that minorities were treated less well than whites. That study led to increased political pressure on banks to modify their standards with increased emphasis through the Community Reinvestment Act, and aided by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development regulations in the Clinton administration that required parity of outcomes in the lending process.

The effect of all of this meddling was compounded by the lax or incompetent supervision of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. All in all, the government got into the business of encouraging and then forcing lending institutions to make mortgage loans to people who could not pay them back. What we ended up with is a failure of government, which we have erroneously termed a failure of capitalism.


All of this led to a huge overleveraging in the consumer market. The increase in debt burden fueled much of the nation's economic growth over recent decades, aided somewhat by increases in productivity and underpinned by easy money from the Federal Reserve. Since consumers represent about 70% of the nation's GNP, and since leverage cannot increase forever, we were bound to see the bubble burst and eventually enter a substantial recession.

So, are the current credit easing actions likely to be helpful or not? In my judgment, measures to create liquidity are likely to be helpful. Financial institutions that lend money to credit-worthy people for reasonable purposes have experienced a substantial reduction in available funding from which they can make loans. Hence the programs to support the securitization markets are sensible because money used for this purpose will be lent and used for purchases. Programs that deliver a short-term reduction in mortgage rates will, at the margin, help absorb some of the available housing stock, reducing the time it will take for housing to reach market-clearing levels.


In the longer term, our nation must delever -- either by reducing the amounts of borrowing or by increasing consumer earning power through economic growth. Relying on growth alone implies a growth rate higher than we have ever experienced in our nation's history. Nonetheless, our public policy must encourage economic growth by lowering tax rates for corporations and individuals while at the same time avoiding what would be growth killers, including "card check" legislation and trade restrictions. Public policy should support higher savings rates, and avoid encouraging increased consumer spending funded by further debt, which may be helpful in the short term but catastrophic in the longer term.

It is not only consumers that must delever. Governments must as well. State and local governments across the nation have incurred direct and indirect debt or obligations in the tens of trillions of dollars -- obligations that cannot be met under any set of reasonable circumstances without an explosion in growth and tax revenues. In fact, we continue to incur debt for politically palatable ideas, like rebate checks, which have very little stimulative power but increase the depth of the hole we're in.

To solve this problem for ourselves and future generations, we must get back to our historic reliance on personal responsibility and market forces, and get government out of economic management. It doesn't do a good job, as the current economic mess amply proves.

Comment: The last paragraph is key - "personal responsibility and market forces, and get government out of economic management"

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