The mammoth financial bailout plan is finally in place. But don't exhale just yet.
The $700 billion rescue bill that Congress finally passed will limit panic in the markets, since it gives the government vast new authority to take over sclerotic securities that have clogged the credit system and already brought down some of America's biggest companies. With the feds stepping into the bloodbath, the hemorrhaging should stop. But the economy is still in precarious shape, and unrealistic expectations about the bailout could end up disappointing consumers hoping for some kind of immediate relief.
Here are some likely developments for which consumers should prepare:
Less volatility. One thing the bailout will do is give investors some clarity and predictability, which will help calm the financial markets. With a clear plan for handling troubled companies—instead of the ad hoc approach applied to Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and others—the government will abide by a consistent set of bailout rules, which will prevent the wild swings in the stock markets that made September a heart-stopping month.
But beware a sucker's rally. With the congressional melodrama over and the bailout in place, the markets will be reacting once again to ordinary economic forces—which are weak, at best. A few other big financial firms, and a lot of regional banks, are expected to take a hit next, especially if the credit crunch persists. Even if the government manages those problems smoothly, shareholders could get wiped out or of suffer deep losses. The global economy is cooling, too, which means less demand for American exports—a rare economic bright spot until lately—and lower profits for American multinational firms. All of those factors are likely to weigh down stocks.
Safe banks. There will probably be more bank failures, but the bill makes it clear that depositors don't need to worry about their money. The bill raises the amount of deposits covered by the FDIC from $100,000 to $250,000. That makes an implicit guarantee explicit: Until now, the FDIC has covered all deposits, including those over $100,000, to prevent "walks" on banks by people withdrawing everything over the insured limit. Now, the government will guarantees that higher amounts will be covered, even if banks fail.
A recession. Unfortunately, a more stable financial system probably won't prevent a sharp economic downturn, which already seems to be underway. Economists will probably continue to argue about whether it's technically a recession. But for many consumers and a lot of big industries, it doesn't matter what you call it: Times are tough, and getting tougher.
Job cuts in September—159,000—were the most in five years. Most economists are betting that additional jobs are going to be cut in coming months as companies hunker down. Worried consumers are likely to cut spending, deepening the dismal cycle.
There's already a recession in the auto industry, for example, which accounts for a big chunk of Americans' economic activity. Sales in September plunged to the lowest levels in 15 years. Deep worries—and profit-crunching discounts—are spreading to other sectors of the retail economy, too.
The bailout might help contain the damage. Theoretically, the feds' shock therapy will lessen the risk that a lot of companies will go bankrupt, which should motivate nervous bankers to start lending once again, with less fear that their money will vanish. If that actually happens, it will help big and small businesses alike continue to meet their payrolls. But there's nothing in the bill that forces banks to lend money, and they could just keep sitting on their cash for a while. And even if money loosens up, that's still no guarantee that consumers will spend. So any economic boost from the bailout will be indirect and probably take a while.
Minimal tax relief. A tax increase to pay for the bailout seems unnecessary, since many analysts think that the eventual sale of troubled securities could cover the government's costs. But added short-terms costs means that tax cuts anytime soon look less likely. Both Barack Obama and John McCain are pushing tax breaks, a perennial campaign promise. Obama wants to cut taxes for most Americans earning less than $250,000. McCain's plan calls for cutting capital gains taxes and corporate income taxes and extending other tax cuts that are set to expire soon. But don't bank on much relief: With the soaring costs of the federal bailout—plus added expenses, like up to $50 billion in loans for the Detroit automakers—anything that adds to the federal deficit next year is going to be hard to slip past budget hawks in Congress. A smaller set of tax cuts might be possible, though.
Scarce consumer loans. Banks have cut back on virtually every kind of loan to consumers, whether it's for cars, homes, vacations, or small credit-card purchases. One new government provision may help some homeowners who are at risk of defaulting, through a program that allows certain homeowners to renegotiate their loans with the bank. But it's not clear how effective that program will be.
While the bailout is supposed to ease the "credit crunch," it will probably be a while before relief reaches consumers. For one thing, the government will focus first on freeing money for banks and businesses so they are able to keep their operations humming and meet payroll expenses.
If banks do loosen up, the money flow may eventually trickle down to consumers. But stringent lending standards are likely to be in place well into next year, because banks are still digesting defaults on mortgages, car loans, and credit cards. And default rates are rising, not falling. Until those losses are covered, banks are going to say no more often than yes. For the next year or two, many Americans may have little choice but to save for a sunnier day.