Barry Ritholz has a nice takedown of Mayor Bloomberg’s claim that Congress forced the banks to make lots of money by selling bad mortgages. As Barry rightly points out, this is not a story that serious people can tell. It’s like denying climate change or evolution.
However, there are two items worth correcting in Ritholz’s account. First, the core problem facing the economy today is not the legacy of the financial crisis, it is the bursting of the housing bubble. While it was a lot of fun watching the banks fall like dominoes in the fall of 2008, and seeing all the honchos who told us this could never happen staying up late on weekends trying to stem the crash, this is really secondary in the story of the economy’s current problems.
Whatever the problems of the banking system, they are not holding down the economy. Creditworthy borrowers (by pre-bubble standards) can get mortgages at record low interest rates. The same is true for larger corporations who borrow directly on credit markets. Even few smaller businesses report access to credit as major problem.
Rather the economy’s problem is that there is no source of demand to replace the consumption driven by housing bubble wealth that has now disappeared or the housing construction that resulted from hugely inflated bubble prices. We would be in pretty much the same situation today even if there had been no financial crisis. This can be seen by the example of other countries, most notably Spain, that had a much better regulated financial system. Like the United States, Spain had a huge housing bubble that burst, as a result it is still facing double digit unemployment even though it had no financial crisis.
The other item that needs correction is Ritholz’s comment that Greenspan and the rest believe that leaving the market to run itself is the best way to manage the economy. In fact, Greenspan and other alleged free marketers have no interest whatsoever in the free market. They totally support explicit insurance, in the form of deposit insurance and implicit insurance in the form of “too big to fail” guarantees. The banks have taken advantage of the latter insurance in a big way in the last three years.
What we are really fighting over is not a free market, but rather whether the banks will have to pay for the insurance that they get from the government and also face restrictions on their actions as a result of this insurance. (The company that insures my house prohibits me from setting up a fireworks factory in the basement.)
It is understandable that banks, that want to get their government insurance for free, would like to pretend that they just want a free market, but people who don’t share the banks’ agenda should be not be fooled by this claim.
[Dean Baker is co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research where he also writes on media coverage of economics at Beat the Press.]