HOW WE ENDED THE GREAT RECESSION
The U.S. economy has made enormousprogress since the dark days o early 2009.Eighteen months ago, the global nancialsystem was on the brink o collapse and theU.S. was suering its worst economic down-turn since the 1930s. Real GDP was allingat about a 6% annual rate, and monthly joblosses averaged close to 750,000. Today,the nancial system is operating much morenormally, real GDP is advancing at a nearly3% pace, and job growth has resumed, albeitat an insucient pace.From the perspective o early 2009, thisrapid snap-back was a surprise. Maybe thecountry and the world were just lucky. But wetake another view: The Great Recession gaveway to recovery as quickly as it did largelybecause o the unprecedented responses bymonetary and scal policymakers.A stunning range o initiatives was un-dertaken by the Federal Reserve, the Bushand Obama administrations, and Congress(see Table 1). While the eectiveness o anyindividual element certainly can be debated,there is little doubt that in total, the policyresponse was highly eective. I policymak-ers had not reacted as aggressively or asquickly as they did, the nancial systemmight still be unsettled, the economy mightstill be shrinking, and the costs to U.S. tax-payers would have been vastly greater.Broadly speaking, the government setout to accomplish two goals: to stabilizethe sickly nancial system and to mitigatethe burgeoning recession, ultimately re-starting economic growth. The rst taskwas made necessary by the nancial crisis,which struck in the summer o 2007 andspiraled into a nancial panic in the all o 2008. Ater the Lehman Brothers bank-ruptcy, liquidity evaporated, credit spreadsballooned, stock prices ell sharply, and astring o major nancial institutions ailed.The second task was made necessary by thedevastating eects o the nancial crisis onthe real economy, which began to contractat an alarming rate ater Lehman.The Federal Reserve took a number o ex-traordinary steps to quell the nancial panic.In late 2007, it established the rst o whatwould eventually become an alphabet soup o new credit acilities designed to provide liquid-ity to nancial institutions and markets.
TheFed aggressively lowered interest rates during2008, adopting a zero-interest-rate policy by year’s end. It engaged in massive quantitativeeasing in 2009 and early 2010, purchasingTreasury bonds and Fannie Mae and FreddieMac mortgage-backed securities (MBS) tobring down long-term interest rates.The FDIC also worked to stem the nan-cial turmoil by increasing deposit insurancelimits and guaranteeing bank debt. Congressestablished the Troubled Asset Relie Pro-gram (TARP) in October 2008, part o whichwas used by the Treasury to inject much-needed capital into the nation’s banks. TheTreasury and Federal Reserve ordered the 19largest bank holding companies to conductcomprehensive stress tests in the spring o 2009, to determine i they had sucientcapital to withstand urther adverse circum-stances—and to raise more capital i neces-sary. Once the results were made public, thestress tests and subsequent capital raisingrestored condence in the banking system.The eort to end the recession and jump-start the recovery was built around aseries o scal stimulus measures. Tax rebatechecks were mailed to lower- and middle-income households in the spring o 2008;the American Restoration and Recovery Act(ARRA) was passed in early 2009; and sev-eral smaller stimulus measures became lawin late 2009 and early 2010.
In all, close to$1 trillion, roughly 7 percent o GDP, will bespent on scal stimulus. The stimulus hasdone what it was supposed to do: end theGreat Recession and spur recovery. We donot believe it a coincidence that the turn-around rom recession to recovery occurredlast summer, just as the ARRA was providingits maximum economic benet.Stemming the slide also involved rescuingthe nation’s housing and auto industries. Thehousing bubble and bust were the proximatecauses o the nancial crisis, setting o a vi-cious cycle o alling house prices and surgingoreclosures. Policymakers appear to havebroken this cycle with an array o eorts, in-cluding the Fed’s actions to bring down mort-gage rates, an increase in conorming loanlimits, a dramatic expansion o FHA lending, aseries o tax credits or homebuyers, and theuse o TARP unds to mitigate oreclosures.While the housing market remains troubled,its steepest declines are in the past.The near collapse o the domestic autoindustry in late 2008 also threatened toexacerbate the recession. GM and Chryslereventually went through bankruptcies, butTARP unds were used to make the processrelatively orderly. GM is already on its wayto being a publicly-traded company again.Without nancial help rom the ederalgovernment, all three domestic vehicle pro-ducers and many o their suppliers mighthave had to liquidate many operations, withdevastating eects on the broader economy,and especially on the Midwest.Although the economic pain was severeand the budgetary costs were great, thissounds like a success story.
Yet nearly allaspects o the government’s response havebeen subjected to intense criticism. The Fed-eral Reserve has been accused o oversteppingits mandate by conducting scal as well asmonetary policy. Critics have attacked eortsto stem the decline in house prices as inap-propriate; claimed that oreclosure mitigationeorts were ineective; and argued that theauto bailout was both unnecessary and unair.Particularly heavy criticism has been aimed atthe TARP and the Recovery Act, both o whichhave become deeply unpopular.The Troubled Asset Relie Program wascontroversial rom its inception. Both theprogram’s $700 billion headline price tag andits goal o “bailing out” nancial institutions—including some o the same institutions thattriggered the panic in the rst place—werehard or citizens and legislators to swallow. Tothis day, many believe the TARP was a costlyailure. In act, TARP has been a substantialsuccess, helping to restore stability to thenancial system and to end the reeall inhousing and auto markets. Its ultimate cost totaxpayers will be a small raction o the head-line $700 billion gure: A number below $100billion seems more likely to us, with the bankbailout component probably turning a prot.
Criticism o the ARRA has also been stri-dent, ocusing on the high price tag, the slowspeed o delivery, and the act that the un-employment rate rose much higher than theAdministration predicted in January 2009.
HOW WE ENDED THE GREAT RECESSION