Robert Samuelson is unhappy that people continue to believe something that is true — that we bailed out the bankers — and happy that people still believe something that is not true — that we prevented a second Great Depression. In his column Samuelson complains:
"The real Dodd-Frank scandal is that this misinterpretation of events, widely embraced by both parties, has been allowed to stand. In many bailouts, banks’ shareholders suffered huge losses or were wiped out; similarly, top managers lost their jobs. The point was not to protect them but to prevent a collapse of the financial system."
Okay, let's imagine the counterfactual. We decide to take the free market seriously and let it work its magic on Citigroup, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and the rest of the high rollers. These huge banks all go into bankruptcy with the commercial banking parts of the operations taken over by the FDIC. All insured deposits are fully protected, with the FDIC and Fed having the option to raise the limits to protect smaller savers.
The shareholders of these banks are out of luck. They have zero. Samuelson is right that share prices were depressed during the crisis, but that is different than going to zero. Furthermore, operating with the protection of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's promise of "no more Lehmans," the share prices soon bounced back.
As far as the folks with uninsured loans that would have lost, well, many of these people were hedge-fund types and other financial institutions. They would have paid a price for not being very competent. The bailout ensured that they would not be left to suffer the consequences of their actions.
As far as the top executives of the banks, while some were shown the door, many of these people continue to earn paychecks in the millions or tens of millions as the financial sector remains hugely bloated. We had an opportunity to downsize the financial sector in one fell swoop, eliminating this enormous albatross which sucks money out of the economy and hands it to the very rich.
The narrow securities and commodities trading sector is now close to 2.5 percent of GDP ($470 billion a year). In the seventies, it was around 0.5 percent of GDP. Does anyone believe that capital is being allocated more effectively today than forty years ago or that our savings are safer? The additional money spent operating this sector is a huge waste from an economic standpoint, which also plays a large role in the upward redistribution of the last four decades.
In terms of preventing a second Great Depression, this is a nice children's story that the elite like to tell. (And, they get very mad and call people names if they don't agree — we are supposed to take name-calling by the elites very seriously.) We know how to get out of a depression, we learned that lesson in the last one. It's called "spending money."
The claim that we would have suffered a decade of double-digit unemployment if we had not bailed out the banks is premised on a political claim, not an economic one, that we would never have spent the money needed to boost the economy out of a prolonged slump. This claim is not only that any initial stimulus would have been shot down, but even after two, three, or five years of double-digit unemployment the president and congress would not have agreed to a serious stimulus.
This is a pretty strong claim since even tax cuts would serve to provide stimulus, albeit less than spending. (Anyone ever meet a Republican that didn't like tax cuts?) Remember, the first stimulus occurred with George W. Bush in the White House and a 4.7 percent unemployment rate. Those making the claim that in the counterfactual the politicians in Washington never would have done anything to boost the economy has a really low opinion of these folks intelligence and/or honesty. That would be a good topic for a column, if someone really believed it.