Were the Bailouts Necessary? Look to Europe for the Answers





6-4-12

Robert Brent Toplin, Professor of History, Emeritus, University of North Carolina, Wilmington, has published several books and articles on history, politics, and film.

Conservatives in the United States often criticize the federal government’s “bailouts” of large financial institutions during the crash of 2008-2009, yet recent evidence from Europe shows what can happen when ailing banks and businesses are not quickly rescued. The Europeans took what President Barack Obama calls an “incremental” approach to the financial crisis, responding in bits and pieces when specific troubles emerged. In contrast, leaders in the United States acted decisively during the financial meltdown a few years ago. Federal bailouts quickly put American businesses on stronger footing.

Over the past two years American officials have been urging the Europeans to come up with bold measures, much like leaders in Washington did when Wall Street had a meltdown. During that emergency, George W. Bush’s Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson, Jr. and Barack Obama’s Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, found ways to pump money into troubled firms. Their recommendations sparked angry debates in Congress, but politicians ultimately backed the recommendations. Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve aided those efforts by injecting liquidity into the financial system.

These actions helped to pull the U.S. economy out of a tailspin. Problems associated with the Great Recession remain, of course, but the U.S. economy is considerably healthier than most European economies (Germany is a notable exception). “America is doing great,” equity trader Rick Frier told Bloomberg News, but “Europe is a real disaster. Their economies are completely going into the toilet.”

Coordinated action is more difficult in Europe because many nations there have a common currency but not a common fiscal policy. Europe is not “united” in the manner of the United States.

Jin Liqun, chairman of the China Investment Corporation’s supervisory board, identified a major factor in Europe’s stumbling. “Ever since the debt crisis broke out,” complained Liqun, “there has never been a master plan for a resolution. Too much time has been wasted on endless bargaining on terms and conditions for piecemeal bailouts.”

The Europeans have been applying band-aids each time a cut appears rather than taking preventive action to stanch further bleeding. In recent months we have seen the consequence of what Liqun calls “short-termism.” Mediterranean nations continue to hemorrhage. Unemployment in Greece is surging and some Greeks are courting radical politics. Many of them are threatening to renege on their nation’s debts and possibly abandon the euro. A run on Greek banks has started, and large Spanish banks are in danger of collapse. Financial institutions in Italy, Portugal, and Ireland could suffer from runs by panicked depositors and investors.

This news does not seem to affect the thinking of American conservatives. Tea Party activists continue to blast the federal bailouts that saved banks, insurance companies, and auto manufacturers in 2008-2009. Conservatives threaten to retire legislators (Republican or Democrat) who voted for the rescue plans in 2008-2009. They have also lashed out at President Obama for endorsing bailouts. Yet the two-year cascade of troubles in Europe suggests that the United States devised better remedies than the Europeans. American leaders restored business confidence rapidly through emergency funding.

Today many rescued U.S.-based companies are in much better shape. General Motors and Chrysler have reported hefty profits. Most of the money loaned to financial institutions has been returned to the federal government, with interest.

U.S. banks are now stronger. This May the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation reported that U.S. bank earnings in the first quarter of 2012 reached the highest level in nearly five years. The number of troubled banks dropped for the fourth consecutive quarter. Overall, the U.S. banking industry had its most profitable year since 2006.

Judging the value of bailouts requires more than just rigid ideological hostility to rescuing huge private firms during a financial crisis. No one likes bailouts, including those who backed them during the crash of 2008-2009. A responsible effort to prevent future meltdowns (and bailouts) should involve practical solutions, not foolish demands to punish politicians and Fed officials who recognized that extraordinary measures were necessary during the crisis.

One practical response to the Great Recession is to break up gigantic banks that are “too big to fail.” The five largest banks in the United States control 52 percent of the financial industry’s assets. When those megabanks get into trouble, the entire foundation of American finance trembles. Another practical response is to demand more vigorous oversight and regulation of the financial services industry. The recent Wall Street crash occurred, in part, because sentries who were supposed to protect investors and the public were not at their posts.

Conservatives who are in the habit of whining about bailouts should pay more attention to the economic breakdown taking place across the Atlantic. European leaders did not react to their financial troubles in the bold manner of U.S. leaders. The Europeans’ timidity allowed troubles to get out of control. Cleaning up the mess in Europe is now considerably more difficult and more expensive than it would have been a few years ago. Ironically, the Europeans’ dilly-dallying will likely hurt the U.S. economy, even though U.S. leaders responded more effectively to the emergency of 2008-2009.


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