Barney Frank and the Fed Bailout Fallacy

Mike Stark has posted a provocative on-the-street interview with Barney Frank about the recently released Fed data. Frank offers what is now a standard defense of the Fed’s bailout operations: Without them, the economy would have collapsed, so critics should just quit whining. But Frank takes this line a step further, accusing liberal Fed critics of playing into the hands of right-wingers who don’t want to extend any economic relief to anybody for anything, ever. It’s all hooey.

Here’s Frank:

“On the whole, frankly, those who were looking for conspiracies and scandals were disappointed. I think the fact is, what you saw was a series of events that worked pretty well and helped the economy . . . . Would you have had the Fed do nothing? At a time when there was no credit available, would you have had the Fed do nothing? That’s what the right-wing wants.”

First, the “disappointed” critics line massages away the fact that the Fed failed to disclose an enormous amount of information. We still don’t know the credit ratings of collateral accepted at some facilities, and we don’t know the trading prices of securities they accepted as collateral at any of the facilities. Without that information, we can’t determine whether many of these actions were scandalous.

Second, yes– without major government intervention, the economy would indeed have collapsed. Really, the economy collapsed anyway—two years later unemployment is near double-digits—but it’s safe to say the collapse would have been worse had the Fed failed to act. But just because the Fed had to do something doesn’t mean it had to do exactly what it did. There were always other alternatives, and the most obvious would have involved attaching some strings to the bailout facilities.

If you want this money, you have to help homeowners avoid foreclosure, or your executives have to take a hike, or you all have to spend the next month wearing a shirt that reads, “I hijacked the U.S. economy and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.” Just about anything to make clear that aid from the U.S. government came at a price would have been better than, well, nothing.

Frank spends a good deal of the discussion arguing that liberal Fed critics are catering to right-wing agendas:

“My friends on the liberal side shouldn’t always focus on the negative. You’re playing into the hands of the right-wing. You know, it’s the right wing that thinks this is some terrible conspiracy. This was a case of government intervention. The Federal Reserve is a government entity. It intervened substantially to stave off worse damage than we would have gotten, and I think it’s a great mistake for people on the liberal side to engage in this kind of Fed-bashing.”

The Fed had extraordinary powers and was not faced with the choice of whether to intervene, but of how to intervene. I fail to see what is so ultraconservative about objecting to free money for fabulously wealthy criminals/fools who wrecked the economy with predatory loans.

Indeed, it seems to me that the ideological pressure here is really on Frank’s shoulders. When a traditional liberal icon like Frank endorses a bankers-and-brokers-first policy, the public starts to believe that all Democratic policies are just handouts for Wall Street. This was the biggest reason why voters abandoned Democrats at the polls last month. The stimulus and the bailout were all mushed together in peoples’ minds.

But things get really interesting when Stark proposes cutting checks to individuals instead of making loans to the banks. Frank responds:

“You understand how fallacious that is because the money was paid back . . . You acknowledge the money was paid back. Doing what you’re suggesting, cutting everybody a check, they wouldn’t have paid the money back . . . You’re saying instead of lending the banks money, why don’t we give it to individuals? Because then you would have had that much more deficit!”

Frank gets the best of this argument because Stark proposes cutting checks instead of making loans. But what if the Fed had offered everyone in the country a loan at zero or near-zero percent interest, on the condition that individuals put up sufficient collateral? This is a (very) charitable way of describing what the Fed did to support the banking system. If the same courtesy had been extended to individuals, I’m sure plenty of people would have defaulted. But certainly not everybody– zero percent loans are actually pretty easy to pay back. And for those people who did in fact default, the Fed could have simply held onto the collateral to avoid taking a loss.

It’s not obvious that this policy ends up working wonders—plenty of people would have been unable to post collateral, and for many who could, the risk of losing the lawnmower in order to pay the heating bill for another couple of months isn’t really a great deal. There’s no way to gauge whether the additional spending generated could have brought the unemployment rate down very much. And of course, personal loans wouldn’t have helped debt-burdened homeowners very much. But then again, neither did any of the policies the Fed actually implemented!

And it is obvious that the government wouldn’t end up taking a big loss on a big direct-lending-to-actual-people policy. As a result, crowing about the government turning a profit on the Fed’s bailout facilities is really very silly. That doesn’t stop Frank from doing it, however:

“It came back with interest! . . . The Fed is making money off that.”

In short, you don’t have to endorse Michelle-Bachmann-dystopia to object to the Fed’s bailouts. Watch the whole thing: