Saturday, February 7, 2009

Niall Ferguson: "The Great Repression"

Popular historian Niall Ferguson does an imaginary retrospective of 2009, and what the year had in store. It's an interesting excercise, and well worth reading. From the Financial Times.

That was the true significance of the Great Repression which began in August 2007 and reached its nadir in 2009. It was clearly not a Great Depression on the scale of the 1930s, when output in the US declined by as much as a third and unemployment reached 25 per cent. Nor was it merely a Big Recession. As output in the developed world continued to decline throughout 2009 – despite the
best efforts of central banks and finance ministries – the tag “Great Repression” seemed more and more apt: although this was the worst economic crisis in 70 years, many people remained in deep denial about it.


There was uproar when Timothy Geithner, US Treasury secretary, requested an additional $300bn to provide further equity injections for Citigroup, Bank of America and the seven other big banks, just a week after imposing an agonising “mega-merger” on the automobile industry. In Detroit, the Big Three had become just a Big One, on the formation of CGF (Chrysler-General Motors-Ford; inevitably, the press soon re-christened it “Can’t Get Funding”). The banks, by contrast, seemed to enjoy an infinite claim on public funds. Yet no amount of money seemed enough to persuade them to make new loans at lower rates. As one indignant Michigan law-maker put it: “Nobody wants to face the fact that these institutions [the banks] are bust. Not only have they lost all of their capital. If we genuinely marked their assets to market, they would have lost it twice over. The Big Three were never so badly managed as these bankrupt banks.”

In the first quarter, the Fed continued to do everything in its power to avert the slide into deflation. The effective federal funds rate had already hit zero by the end of 2008. In all but name, quantitative easing had begun in November 2008, with large-scale purchases of the debt and mortgage-backed securities of government-sponsored agencies (the renationalised mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) and the promise of future purchases of government bonds. Yet the expansion of the monetary base was negated by the contraction of broader monetary measures such as M2 (the measurement of money and its “close substitutes”, such as savings deposits, that is a key indicator of inflation). The ailing banks were eating liquidity almost as fast as the Fed could create it. The Fed increasingly resembled a government-owned hedge fund, leveraged at more than 75 to 1, its balance sheet composed of assets everyone else wanted to be rid of.

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