The Financial Crisis: Lessons For The Next One by Alan S. Blinder and Mark Zandi, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

The massive and multifaceted policy responses to the financial crisis and Great Recession — ranging from traditional fiscal stimulus to tools that policymakers invented on the fly — dramatically reduced the severity and length of the meltdown that began in 2008; its effects on jobs, unemployment, and budget deficits; and its lasting impact on today’s economy.

Without the policy responses of late 2008 and early 2009, we estimate that:

  • The peak-to-trough decline in real gross domestic product (GDP), which was barely over 4%, would have been close to a stunning 14%;
  • The economy would have contracted for more than three years, more than twice as long as it did;
  • More than 17 million jobs would have been lost, about twice the actual number.
  • Unemployment would have peaked at just under 16%, rather than the actual 10%;
  • The budget deficit would have grown to more than 20 percent of GDP, about double its actual peak of 10 percent, topping off at $2.8 trillion in fiscal 2011.
  • Today’s economy might be far weaker than it is — with real GDP in the second quarter of 2015 about $800 billion lower than its actual level, 3.6 million fewer jobs, and unemployment at a still-dizzying 7.6%.

We estimate that, due to the fiscal and financial responses of policymakers (the latter of which includes the Federal Reserve), real GDP was 16.3% higher in 2011 than it would have been. Unemployment was almost seven percentage points lower that year than it would have been, with about 10 million more jobs.

To be sure, while some aspects of the policy responses worked splendidly, others fell far short of hopes. Many policy responses were controversial at the time and remain so in retrospect. Indeed, certain financial responses were deeply unpopular, like the bank bailouts in the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Nevertheless, these unpopular responses had a larger combined impact on growth and jobs than the fiscal interventions. All told, the policy responses — the 2009 Recovery Act, financial interventions, Federal Reserve initiatives, auto rescue, and more — were a resounding success.

Our findings have important implications for how policymakers should respond to the next financial crisis, which will inevitably occur at some point because crises are an inherent part of our financial system. As explained in greater detail in Section 5:

  • It is essential that policymakers employ “macroprudential tools” (oversight of financial markets) before the next financial crisis to avoid or minimize asset bubbles and the increased leverage that are the fodder of financial catastrophes.
  • When financial panics do come, regulators should be as consistent as possible in their responses to troubled financial institutions, ensuring that creditors know where their investments stand and thus don’t run to dump them when good times give way to bad.
  • Policymakers should not respond to every financial event, but they should respond aggressively to potential crises — and the greater the uncertainty, the more policymakers should err on the side of a bigger response.
  • Policymakers should recognize that the first step in fighting a crisis is to stabilize the financial system because without credit, the real economy will suffocate regardless of almost any other policy response.
  • To minimize moral hazard, bailouts of companies should be avoided. If they are unavoidable, shareholders should take whatever losses the market doles out and creditors should be heavily penalized. Furthermore, taxpayers should ultimately be made financially whole and better communication with the public should be considered an integral part of any bailout operation.
  • Because fiscal and monetary policy interactions are large, policymakers should use a “two-handed” approach (monetary and fiscal) to fight recessions — and, if possible, they should select specific monetary and fiscal tools that reinforce each other.
  • Because conventional monetary policy — e.g., lowering the overnight interest rate — may be insufficient to forestall or cure a severe recession, policymakers should be open to supplementing conventional monetary policy with unconventional monetary policies, such as the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing (QE) program of large-scale financial asset purchases, especially once short-term nominal interest rates approach zero.
  • Discretionary fiscal policy, which has been a standard way to fight recessions since the Great Depression, remains an effective way to do so, and the size of the stimulus should be proportionate to the magnitude of the expected decline in economic activity.
  • Policymakers should not move fiscal policy from stimulus to austerity until the financial system is clearly stable and the economy is enjoying self-sustaining growth.

The worldwide financial crisis and global recession of 2007-2009 were the worst since the 1930s. With luck, we will not see their likes again for many decades. But we will see a variety of financial crises and recessions, and we should be better prepared for them than we were in 2007. That’s why we examined the policy responses to this most recent crisis closely, and why we wrote this paper.

We provide details of the methods we used to generate the findings summarized above. But generally speaking, we use the Moody’s Analytics model of the macroeconomy to simulate how growth, jobs, unemployment, and other variables might have evolved in the absence of the policy. We then compare this simulated path to what actually happened, identifying the differences as the impacts of the policy. That’s a standard approach, one that, for example, the Congressional Budget Office used to evaluate the Recovery Act (whose findings, as we show, are similar to our own).

Table 1 shows the estimated impacts of the full panoply of policy responses, along with the impacts of two specific sub-categories: fiscal stimulus and the financial response. The columns show how much the policies boosted real GDP and jobs, and how much they reduced unemployment, in the years 2009-2012. (Details in the paper provide quarterly data through the second quarter of 2015 and include impacts on inflation as well.)

Financial Crisis

Financial Crisis

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