Why It's Taking So Long To Fix the Economy

Those still hoping for a quick turnaround will be deeply disappointed

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Nobody wants to listen to Ben Bernanke - even though the Federal Reserve Chairman has been a pretty effective soothsayer.

Last fall, he famously predicted catastrophe if the government didn’t step in to help stabilize panicky financial markets. That was on the mark: Even with more than $2 trillion worth of government intervention since then, the economy is in tatters.

Bernanke has said we’re in a “severe” recession, which has now been borne out by the biggest decline in GDP since the punishing 1982 downturn. And now, he says that a recovery depends on whether a series of unproven government moves works or not. If we're lucky, things might start to get better by 2010.

[See how to tell when the economy’s getting better.]

We don’t want to believe it. That’s too long. We don’t want to wait till next year. We want things to get better NOW.

Stock market investors are the worst offenders. They’re continually looking for signs that a quick fix is right around the corner. Then they grow despondent when it doesn’t materialize, madly selling and sending the markets into yet another nosedive.

Homeowners are guilty, too. Sellers in many neighborhoods are still clinging to unrealistically high prices, sure that a housing rebound is coming soon. Workers who still have jobs refuse to prepare for a rainy day, hoping they won’t be among the 1 or 2 million Americans still likely to lose their jobs this year. Most of us, in one way or another, want to believe it can’t really get much worse.

[See 5 pieces missing from Obama’s stimulus plan.]

Sorry to say, it can. Here’s why it’s taking so long to resolve the biggest problems our economy faces:

The housing bust. We know now that we’ve been living through a classic bubble in the housing market, where frenzied buyers sensing a rush bid prices far higher than they should have gone. So the market crashed. And now everybody wants to know when home prices will stop falling.

There have been half a dozen government programs to stem foreclosures and help stabilize the housing market. But too much help would falsely subsidize prices once again, and prolong the problem. For the most part, bubbles need to work themselves out.

After the tech bubble burst in 1999, technology stocks took a beating similar to today’s housing market. The tech-heavy Nasdaq stock index sank for about two-and-a-half years, bottoming out in 2002. But it didn’t come roaring back to where it had been. Instead, it began a steady climb out of the basement, aided by Alan Greenspan’s interest rate cuts. By 2007, many of the tech shares that survived had regained ground lost during the bust. But it took nearly a decade.

[See why the feds rescue banks but not homeowners.]

Home prices peaked in 2006, so we’re more than two years into the bust. It’s plausible that the slide in prices will end later this year or in 2010. But keep in mind that tech stocks recovered during a booming economy – which obviously we don’t have right now. In some areas it could easily take another five years for housing markets to return to normal.

Broken banks. The markets rise and fall on every whisper out of Washington about the direction of President Obama’s bank-bailout plan. But whatever the plan, it will take years before the balance sheets of teetering titans like Citigroup and Bank of America are healthy again. An effective plan might generate confidence that the feds are on the case, but there is no conceiveable plan that will repair the most troubled banks anytime soon.

[See why bank nationalization is so scary.]

Part of their problem is a mountain of losses stemming from mortgage foreclosures, which helped make the last quarter of 2008 one of the worst ever for the nation’s banks. But bigger losses are coming, as the recession deepens, more workers lose their jobs, and default rates on other kinds of consumer loans spike. Then there are those trillions of dollars worth of mortgage-baked securities and other assets that nobody has wanted to buy for almost a year. They’re worth something, but nobody knows what, and until that starts to become clearer, buyers will sit and wait.

The government has bailed out and wound down many banks before – and it’s usually a muddle-through affair that lasts a long time. That’s because failing banks are usually saddled with assets that have plunged in value and are hard to sell. After the Resolution Trust Corporation took over several thousand S&Ls in the 1980s, it took more than five years to sell much of the real estate and other assets that brought these banks down. It could take just as long to unwind the huge portfolios of troubled securities at Citigroup and other banks.

[See what Citigroup and AIG will look like in a year.]

If there’s any good news, it’s that the working parts of these banks will continue to function while the broken parts get dismantled. That’s what the federal interventions are supposed to do. In other words, they might resume something that looks like normal lending before all the problems are solved.

Other failing companies. If not for federal relief, other staggering companies like AIG, General Motors, and Chrysler, would be well into bankruptcy proceedings, and possibly headed toward liquidation. Federal aid has prevented that – but even so, the transformation of those companies is starting to look similar to a Chapter 11 reorganization.

AIG, for instance, is selling off many of its assets and lines of business, to raise cash it can use to pay back government loans. GM is killing off divisions, slashing its workforce, and making draconian deals with unions. To get some idea of how long this might go on, consider the bankruptcy of United Airlines, which lasted more than three years. And that was under court-ordered deadlines. GM has predicted that even if it gets all the money it’s asking for from the government, it won’t break even until 2011 or have significant free cash flow until 2014. AIG may have to wait nearly five years just for its vast portfolio of credit-default swaps, one key source of its problems, to expire. So this sorry show will be airing for a long time. If you want to switch it off for awhile, that might be a good idea.

[See 9 bailout surprises from GM and Chrysler.]

Layoffs. As consumers spend less and the economy contracts, companies cut jobs. And they won’t add them back until they’re damn sure the economy is improving. The Fed and many others expect unemployment to rise to nearly 9 percent this year, from 7.6 percent now. That may start to come down in 2010 – but like everything else, slowly.

[See why the media is hyperventilating over unemployment.]

Plunging confidence. Americans are worth a lot less then they were a couple years ago. The Federal Reserve said recently that since the recession started in December 2007, the aggregate net worth of Americans has fallen by 23 percent, thanks largely to declines in home values and investment portfolios. And that was only through last October. Just about everything has gotten worse since then. So Americans’ feel poorer, and they’re a lot more worried about their jobs, too. No surprise consumers have sharply cut back spending – which makes companies cut even more jobs.

Americans will start to feel a little better when the biggest problems stop getting worse, layoffs subside, and there's less worry about getting or keeping a job. And when will that be? Not soon enough for most of us. But if you take a longer view, the recovery might not seem so far off.