What would be the dollar cost of not bailing out Wall Street? Try a number north of $30 trillion. (The awful math is detailed below.) That's why Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke were so scared last week. And, yes, I think "scared" isn't too strong a word. You don't think they convened an emergency nighttime meeting of congressional leaders and then walked out with something close to a blank check for a trillion bucks because they thought we were headed for an outright recession, even a fairly nasty one?
Nope, I think they believed, and got Congress to believe, that the economy was on the verge of something far worse than the worst downturn in a generation. And that is why they went with the so-called nuclear option: the biggest financial bailout in history. In the words of JPMorgan Chase economist James Glassman, "Thankfully, we and our friends around the world who are watching the economic lights come on will never know where events would have led, if the clock had not stopped [last] Thursday afternoon.... Last week's events made the 1987 stock market crash look like child's play."
As plumbers say about pricey repairs, "Sure, it costs money. It costs money because it saves you money." And plumber in chief Paulson had a pretty big pipe, loaded with toxic debt, to unclog.
OK, let's run the numbers. Paulson is asking for $700 billion. But that massive amount doesn't include previous government actions to cure the credit crisis (like propping up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac), nor does it take into account money the government may get back from selling the bad assets it will be purchasing. So let's say those situations cancel each other out, and we are really talking about $700 billion. Now that money is being borrowed. So you take $700 billion borrowed for 30 years at prevailing interest rates, and you are talking about $2.5 trillion. But as Paulson said last week, "I am convinced that this bold approach will cost American families far less than the alternative: a continuing series of financial institution failures and frozen credit markets unable to fund economic expansion."
Now let's do the math on the "alternatives." What would doing nothing cost?
1) Scenario 1: Great Depression "Lite." This is supposed to be the worst financial crisis since the 1930s. So let's assume that the total freezing up of American and global credit markets caused something half as bad as the Great Depression. From 1930 through 1933, the U.S. economy shrank by about 25 percent. Now let's say that by doing nothing and letting Mr. Market do his worst, the $12 trillion U.S. economy shrinks by half that amount (12.5 percent), or around $1.5 trillion over four years. (Also, figure a near doubling in unemployment.) But there's also the opportunity cost of not returning to growth, even at a so-so 2.0 percent a year. Doing nothing costs $1.1 trillion more in lost growth. So now we are down $2.6 trillion.
But wait: There's more. Let's assume the stock market drops an additional 25 percent or so. That's $3 trillion more in lost market capitalization. Plus, we are forgoing the opportunity to gain back what we have lost in the market, about $3 trillion. So, add the $6 million in lost market capitalization to the lost economic output, and we are at $8.6 trillion.
Then there is housing, already down $5 trillion, or roughly 20 percent. Let's conservatively say that we lose another $5 trillion by doing nothing. Plus, we forgo a partial rebound, say, $2.5 trillion. Adding together further housing losses (plus the lost opportunity to recoup some losses), and we are talking about a total cost of doing nothing of $15 trillion in four years for the whole megillah. But it could be worse.
2) Scenario 2: Great Depression 2.0. The economy shrinks by 25 percent over four years, or $3.2 trillion, plus $1.1 trillion in lost opportunity growth. Economic cost: $4.3 trillion. The market falls two thirds from its peak, losing $7 trillion in value from its current level, plus $3 trillion from not getting a rebound. Stock market cost: $10 trillion. Housing falls an additional $10 trillion from current levels, plus the lost opportunity of $2.5 trillion from a rebound. Housing cost: $12.5 trillion. Total four-year financial and economic cost of doing nothing: $26.8 trillion.
Now this is all a very rough guesstimate and doesn't include the costs of all sorts of other ramifications. Here is a fun one: the dissolution of China. Its economy is built for hypergrowth. A dramatically rising standard of living is both keeping the Communist Party in power and keeping the country together. Neither might survive a global economic meltdown. What is the economic impact of that? I don't know. My guesstimator just blew up.
Bottom line: Lots of folks have problems with the bailout. Liberals don't like a government bailout of Wall Street (instead of more homeowner help). Conservatives don't like a government bailout of Wall Street (vs. letting the market have its way). In a commentary on the National Review website, Newt Gingrich shows great skepticism toward the Mother of All Bailouts, advising that Congress "had better ask a lot of questions before it shifts this much burden to the taxpayer and shifts this much power to a Washington bureaucracy." He also presents several other actions government could take: 1) suspend the mark-to-market accounting rule; 2) repeal the Sarbanes-Oxley law; 3) eliminate the capital-gains tax; 4) undertake an "all of the above" energy plan to keep at home $500 billion of the $700 billion we currently send overseas for imported energy.
Count me as "all of the above" for Gingrich's ideas. (Toss in a corporate tax cut while you're at it.) But what would have been a smart, free-market plan in August 2007 or March of this year isn't enough for right now. Just as government created the environment for the credit crisis, it failed to enact quick solutions. The situation has gone critical. It's time for shock and awe.