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Becker: Economists are unprepared

Gary Becker says economists are unprepared and government actions are not enough to contain the damage.

Clearly, however, central bankers and we economists were unprepared for the magnitude of the present financial crisis, and even less for its large effects on the real economy through the drying up of credit for mortgages and business investments. This recession is still ongoing, but it appears as if it will be the most severe recession since 1982, when American unemployment peaked in some months at about 10.5 percent. One year into the recession according to the NBER dating, unemployment has reached 6.7 percent, and it is still rising at a fast pace.

Central banks, especially the Fed, did respond rather rapidly to the unfolding of the financial crisis, even before it had a large impact on the economy. The Fed employed all the weapons in its traditional arsenal, such as lowering interest rates and easing access to the discount window. It also innovated beyond traditional approaches by allowing investment banks access to its credit, and by helping to arrange for the takeover or elimination of weak investment banks, such as Bears Stern and Lehman brothers.

In contrast to the Fed, the US Treasury took a series of actions with dubious merit, including bailouts and a fiscal stimulus, that had few consistent principles. The latest as reported in the NY Times and Wall Street Journal is to use Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to encourage banks to drop mortgages to 4.5 percent in order to raise housing prices and encourage home building. Yet Freddie and Fannie and their government guarantees contributed to the housing mess by encouraging excessive building of residential dwellings. Any effect of this proposed price ceiling on housing prices on mortgage rates would be small, but the damage to adjustments in the housing market would be major. The goal of policy should be to reduce, not increase, the power and distortions caused by these two institutions.

In any case, the Fed and Treasury's actions combined obviously were not sufficient to greatly contain the damage to the real sector. The retreat from risk has been so large that treasury bills and bonds are selling at very low interest rates, other measures of risk are way up, and lenders are reluctant to lend, even when expected rates of return on their investments are high. Not surprisingly, the confidence of central bankers and economists that we have learned how to moderate greatly the real business cycle has been shattered. It is revealing how many leading macroeconomists have been silent during the unfolding of this crisis. Perhaps the prudent approach is to go back to the drawing board before offering an interpretation of what happened, and how to combat it.

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