Credit Markets are Frozen as Economy Stalls — The Fed’s Efforts to Increase Lending Fail Despite Billions to Banks

Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke and his fellow monetary watchdogs have taken unprecedented steps in the past year to increase liquidity in the credit market.  They’ve cut the short-term interest rate seven times since September 2007.  They’ve committeded billions of public dollars to prevent the bankruptcy of Bear Stearns and other major financial institutions, and billions more to prop-up mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  The goal has been to stabilize the financial markets and increase liquidity — that is, to make more money available to more people and businesses.

What has been the result of the Fed’s efforts?

The answer is: Not much.

Despite the Fed’s efforts — and the billions of public dollars invested over the past year in the financial industry — the banking business has just about shut down.

In fact, it is harder now for most business to borrow money than it was before the Fed started its rating-cutting.

As the New York Times reports, “Banks struggling to recover from multibillion-dollar losses on real estate are curtailing loans to American businesses, depriving even healthy companies of money for expansion and hiring.  Two vital forms of credit used by companies — commercial and industrial loans from banks, and short-term “commercial paper” not backed by collateral — collectively dropped almost 3 percent over the last year, to $3.27 trillion from $3.36 trillion, according to Federal Reserve data. That is the largest annual decline since the credit tightening that began with the last recession, in 2001.”

The effect of the banks’ tight money policy could be devastating to the economy. 

Mortgage rates will continue to climb, further increasing foreclosures and heightening the housing crisis.  Those industries closely allied with real estate, such as construction, will continue to collapse.  Even successful businesses will be unable to expand, further increasing the jobless rate.  Smaller businesses, which provide a large percentage of American jobs, will be particularly hard hit, since they will be entirely frozen out of the credit market.  Bankruptcies, both large and small, will continue to spiral upward. 

What is the answer?

The Fed’s rate-cutting hasn’t worked, and the piece-meal approach being taken by Congress and the administration (including the new mortgage relief legislation) won’t work either.

What is needed is a comprehensive overhaul of the entire banking and financial system and the credit markets, including the securities laws.

And for that, we’ll have to wait at least until a new Congress and a new administration take over in January 2008.  Even then, comprehensive and systemic change is unlikely.

We need a 21st Century Franklin Roosevelt. 

Unfortunately, that’s probably impossible until we’re in the midst of a 21st Century Great Depression.

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