Architects of the government’s response to the last financial crisis worry the country is ill-equipped to handle another, fearing an “amnesia” has taken hold of policymakers, regulators and the public that could lead to the next panic.
Four former regulators and treasury secretaries, once prominent but now faded from public view, said in the past week they hoped to use the 10-year anniversary of the Great Recession to force a public debate about how to prevent another crisis from ravaging the economy, particularly by forcing regulators to remain vigilant and giving them flexibility to move swiftly.
Former U.S. Treasury secretaries Henry Paulson and Timothy Geithner and former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke met with reporters last week to discuss a September summit they are hosting to review lessons learned — both good and bad — from the crisis.
“The thing that concerns me the most is some of the rhetoric and some of the amnesia in terms of what we went through,” Paulson said.
Separately, former Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Sheila Bair, said she also fears the deregulatory wave taking hold of Washington could plant the seeds of the next crisis, creating a freewheeling debt binge that topped thousands of companies and led to millions of foreclosures.
“This is the same kind of thing we were seeing in 2005 and 2006,” Bair said.
Some of them said the public’s fury at the government bailouts and Washington’s move to restrain regulators could make it impossible for policymakers to intervene, Paulson said. In 2008, he asked Congress for an unlimited credit line to try to stop the banking panic. They eventually settled on a $700 billion fund, known the Troubled Asset Relief Program, that was used to stabilize the system. He questioned whether the public or political leaders would ever allow that to happen now, given the populist grip that has taken hold of the country.
The financial crisis reached its peak 10 years ago, a global banking panic that shook stock markets, wiped out thousands of companies, erased trillions of dollars in savings and drove unemployment from 4.7 percent to 10 percent in 24 months.
To arrest the panic, the Bush and Obama administrations used controversial and — at times — barely legal methods to flood financial markets with taxpayer money. Most of this money flowed directly to banks, not homeowners, causing a populist revolt.
Bernanke, Geithner, Paulson and Bair succeeded in preventing another Great Depression, but the populist blowback to their actions created scars that persist today, fueling class warfare that has permeated through multiple elections.
It also led Congress to strip away some of the emergency powers the government used. For example, the government retained the ability to extend money to a specific company but it became much harder to set up a broader emergency lending program without approval from Congress.
And now the Trump administration has launched a wave of deregulation through banking and other industries, clipping the scope of the consumer protection agency created after the crisis and limiting the reach of the Federal Reserve.
Now, some of the people who led the response to the crisis fear a weakened regulatory system could prove inadequate to stop the next panic, whenever it comes.
The government has, “on net, a somewhat weaker emergency arsenal to deal with the extreme financial crisis” than it did 10 years ago, Geithner said.
He said the government needs other powers to respond, such as the ability to make emergency loans across the banking system to stem a bank run or panic.
He said that flexibility is now constrained, in part because the Dodd-Frank law made it much more difficult to establish big rescue programs. He said this could raise the risk regulators will not have the economic force to prevent a recession from becoming a crisis.
Bair said she sees worrying signs now. The Federal Reserve is considering changes to the “stress tests” it began using in 2009 to scrutinize banks, and some of those changes could make it easier for financial companies to pass. She said regulators should demand banks use this period of economic strength to build up their reserves even more, so they have ample protection during the next downturn.
“The next downturn is going to come at some point, whether it’s next year or in a couple years, I don’t know,” said Bair, who was nominated to her post by President George W. Bush. “But it will be okay if the banks have enough capital and can keep lending. If they cannot, we are going to have another problem.”
Paulson, Bair, Bernanke, and Geithner have each written a book about their experiences during the crisis. They said the government’s response during the next crisis will depend not just on the rules, but who is in the position to enforce them, both at the White House but also at the Fed, Treasury and FDIC.
Paulson said the decisions that will have to be made during a crisis often prove unpopular and gut-wrenching.
Geithner, Bernanke and Paulson said the purpose of the September summit, which will be hosted by the Brookings Institution, is not necessarily to identify the causes of the next crisis, but to make sure policymakers know the types of tools they will need to respond when they do.
“Too often, you look at the scene of the last crime,” Paulson said.
Senior Trump administration officials have blamed the response to the financial crisis, particularly the Dodd-Frank regulatory law that passed in 2010, for blanketing the financial system in red tape and making it harder for banks to lend. They have blamed Democrats and regulators such as Paulson, Geithner and Bernanke for imposing the government too much in the financial markets.
Now the White House and Republicans in Congress, aided by a number of Democrats, have taken steps to roll back parts of that law, particularly for the way it impacts smaller banks.
Trump has appointed Mick Mulvaney, his budget chief, to temporarily lead an agency that is tasked with regulating consumer financial products. One of the causes of the crisis 10 years ago was the pervasive extension of shoddy loan products to many Americans who lacked the capacity to repay.
Mulvaney has taken steps to rein in this agency’s scope, saying that in doing so he is making it easier for people to get loans. But this has led to an outcry from Democrats who fear the abuses of the past could resurface.
“I think the significant intent to erode and scale back consumer protection is something we are going to live to regret as a country,” Geithner said.
Heather Long contributed to this report.