Democracy Dies in Darkness

Opinions

Three big takeaways from the financial crisis

September 12, 2018 at 11:11 AM

Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Sept. 22, 2008. (Richard Drew/AP)

Ten years after the onset of the 2008-2009 financial crisis, we’re swamped with studies and reminiscences. What are the legacies of the crisis? How long will they endure? Are they accurate — or just convenient scapegoats? Here are three takeaways.

(1) We can no longer rule out another worldwide depression — something akin to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The crisis surprised almost everyone. Another worldwide depression was considered an impossibility. Our economic understanding and the government’s tools to fight instability had progressed sufficiently to halt any downward spiral before it became a full-fledged depression. True, there was no depression. The unemployment rate peaked at 10 percent, which — though horrific — was well below the 25 percent peak in the 1930s. But if the experts were surprised once, they could be surprised again.

It was a close call and required extreme measures (zero interest rates, and hundreds of billions of dollars to rescue fragile banks and financial institutions). Next time we may not be so lucky. The fears incited by the financial crisis were widely felt, reports a new study (“Public Opinion 10 Years After the Financial Crash”) by Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute.

Consider: In the summer of 2009, nearly a third of workers feared they would be laid off, a Gallup poll reported. Gallup also reported that in 2009, only 8 percent of respondents thought it was a “good time” to find a “quality” job — an all-time low. It’s doubtful that these severe worries have been forgotten, and they might prompt consumers to cut spending drastically when there’s another recession. We don’t have a precise definition of what qualifies as a “depression” as opposed to a run-of-the mill recession, but most people can sense the distinction. We were on the edge.

(2) Americans have long been ambivalent about big business, and in particular Wall Street, but the financial crisis deepened the ambivalence and hostility.

Gallup found that high confidence in banks had dropped from 53 percent in 2004 to 21 percent in 2012. Large segments of the population believe Wall Street (a metaphor for bankers, brokers, investment advisers, portfolio managers) are overpaid. A Harris poll in 2012 reported that 64 percent of respondents felt Wall Street didn’t deserve its pay.

But there’s another side to the story. Americans seemed to have reconciled themselves to Wall Street’s shortcomings as a necessary evil. The Harris poll in 2012 found that 55 percent of respondents agreed that Wall Street “benefits the country” by funneling investment funds to businesses. Americans “are generally suspicious of big, powerful, distant institutions such as Wall Street. At the same time, they recognize that these institutions are necessary for the U.S. economy to grow,” writes Bowman.

(3) Given the two takeaways above, it may be harder — not easier — for the government to defuse a similar crisis in the future.

In articles and press briefings, former Fed chairman Ben Bernanke and former treasury secretaries Henry Paulson and Tim Geithner have argued that Congress, responding to the unpopularity of financial bailouts, has made it harder for the Federal Reserve and the Treasury to stop a future financial panic. “Even if a financial crisis is now less likely,” they wrote recently in the New York Times, “one will occur eventually. . . . The paradox of any financial crisis is that the policies necessary to stop it are always politically unpopular.”

So we may not know the full legacy of the financial crisis until the country has to face a sequel.

Read more from Robert Samuelson’s archive.

Read more:

Megan McArdle: The collapse of Lehman Brothers changed everything and nothing

Robert J. Samuelson: Lehman Brothers collapsed 10 years ago. Whose fault was it?

Sebastian Mallaby: The dangerous myth we still believe about the Lehman Brothers bust

Robert J. Samuelson: Times are good, but don’t sleep at the wheel


Robert J. Samuelson writes a twice-weekly column on economics.

Post Recommends
Outbrain

We're glad you're enjoying The Washington Post.

Get access to this story, and every story, on the web and in our apps with our Basic Digital subscription.

Welcome to The Washington Post

Thank you for subscribing
Keep reading for $10 $1
Show me more offers