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Krugman On Stress Test Optimism: Not So Fast

Krugman suggests we shouldn't be all that happy just yet over the results of the stress tests: Can the economy recover even with weak banks? Maybe. B

Krugman suggests we shouldn't be all that happy just yet over the results of the stress tests:

Can the economy recover even with weak banks? Maybe. Banks won’t be expanding credit any time soon, but government-backed lenders have stepped in to fill the gap. The Federal Reserve has expanded its credit by $1.2 trillion over the past year; Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have become the principal sources of mortgage finance. So maybe we can let the economy fix the banks instead of the other way around.

But there are many things that could go wrong.

It’s not at all clear that credit from the Fed, Fannie and Freddie can fully substitute for a healthy banking system. If it can’t, the muddle-through strategy will turn out to be a recipe for a prolonged, Japanese-style era of high unemployment and weak growth.

Actually, a multiyear period of economic weakness looks likely in any case. The economy may no longer be plunging, but it’s very hard to see where a real recovery will come from. And if the economy does stay depressed for a long time, banks will be in much bigger trouble than the stress tests — which looked only two years ahead — are able to capture.

Finally, given the possibility of bigger losses in the future, the government’s evident unwillingness either to own banks or let them fail creates a heads-they-win-tails-we-lose situation. If all goes well, the bankers will win big. If the current strategy fails, taxpayers will be forced to pay for another bailout.

But what worries me most about the way policy is going isn’t any of these things. It’s my sense that the prospects for fundamental financial reform are fading.

Does anyone remember the case of H. Rodgin Cohen, a prominent New York lawyer whom The Times has described as a “Wall Street éminence grise”? He briefly made the news in March when he reportedly withdrew his name after being considered a top pick for deputy Treasury secretary.

Well, earlier this week, Mr. Cohen told an audience that the future of Wall Street won’t be very different from its recent past, declaring, “I am far from convinced there was something inherently wrong with the system.” Hey, that little thing about causing the worst global slump since the Great Depression? Never mind.

Those are frightening words. They suggest that while the Federal Reserve and the Obama administration continue to insist that they’re committed to tighter financial regulation and greater oversight, Wall Street insiders are taking the mildness of bank policy so far as a sign that they’ll soon be able to go back to playing the same games as before.

So as I said, while bankers may find the results of the stress tests “reassuring,” the rest of us should be very, very afraid.

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