Bernanke: The Long And Short Versions

For those who want the whole thing, here is Chairman Bernanke’s much awaited Jackson Hole speach.

Bernanke — A Year of crisis

For those who can do with a summary, here it is from the WSJ Real Time Economics blog:

WHERE IS THE ECONOMY NOW? BETTER, NOT GREAT.

“After contracting sharply over the past year, economic activity appears to be leveling out, both in the United States and abroad, and the prospects for a return to growth in the near term appear good. Notwithstanding this noteworthy progress, critical challenges remain: Strains persist in many financial markets across the globe, financial institutions face significant additional losses, and many businesses and households continue to experience considerable difficulty gaining access to credit. Because of these and other factors, the economic recovery is likely to be relatively slow at first, with unemployment declining only gradually from high levels.”

WHY DID HE LET LEHMAN FAIL? NO CHOICE

“Concerted government attempts to find a buyer for the company or to develop an industry solution proved unavailing, and the company’s available collateral fell well short of the amount needed to secure a Federal Reserve loan of sufficient size to meet its funding needs. As the Federal Reserve cannot make an unsecured loan, and as the government as a whole lacked appropriate resolution authority or the ability to inject capital, the firm’s failure was, unfortunately, unavoidable. The Federal Reserve and the Treasury were compelled to focus instead on mitigating the fallout from the failure, for example, by taking measures to stabilize the triparty repurchase (repo) market.”

WHY, THEN, WAS AIG SAVED? IT HAD COLLATERAL

“…the Federal Reserve judged that the company’s financial and business assets were adequate to secure an $85 billion line of credit, enough to avert its imminent failure. Because AIG was counterparty to many of the world’s largest financial firms, a significant borrower in the commercial paper market and other public debt markets, and a provider of insurance products to tens of millions of customers, its abrupt collapse likely would have intensified the crisis substantially further, at a time when the U.S. authorities had not yet obtained the necessary fiscal resources to deal with a massive systemic event.”

WHAT MADE THIS CRISIS SO SEVERE? IT WAS A CLASSIC PANIC WITH 21st CENTURY FEATURES

“Certainly, fundamentals played a critical role in triggering those events….the economy was already in recession, and it had weakened further over the summer. The continuing dramatic decline in house prices and rising rates of foreclosure raised serious concerns about the values of mortgage-related assets, and thus about large potential losses at financial institutions. More broadly, investors remained distrustful of virtually all forms of private credit, especially structured credit products and other complex or opaque instruments.

“At the same time, however, the events of September and October also exhibited some features of a classic panic, of the type described by Bagehot and many others. A panic is a generalized run by providers of short-term funding to a set of financial institutions, possibly resulting in the failure of one or more of those institutions. The historically most familiar type of panic, which involves runs on banks by retail depositors, has been made largely obsolete by deposit insurance or guarantees and the associated government supervision of banks. But panic is possible in any situation in which longer-term, illiquid assets are financed by short-term, liquid liabilities, and in which suppliers of short-term funding either lose confidence in the borrower or become worried that other short-term lenders may lose confidence. Although, in a certain sense, a panic may be collectively irrational, it may be entirely rational at the individual level, as each market participant has a strong incentive to be among the first to the exit.”

SO WHAT SHOULD BE DONE NOW? WATCH BANK LIQUIDITY & SYSTEMIC RISK

“…the experience has underscored that liquidity risk management is as essential as capital adequacy and credit and market risk management, particularly during times of intense financial stress. ….[L]iquidity guidelines must take into account the risks that inadequate liquidity planning by major financial firms pose for the broader financial system, and they must ensure that these firms do not become excessively reliant on liquidity support from the central bank. But liquidity risk management at the level of the firm, no matter how carefully done, can never fully protect against systemic events. In a sufficiently severe panic, funding problems will almost certainly arise and are likely to spread in unexpected ways. Only central banks are well positioned to offset the ensuing sharp decline in liquidity and credit provision by the private sector. They must be prepared to do so.

“The role of liquidity in systemic events provides yet another reason why, in the future, a more systemwide or macroprudential approach to regulation is needed. The hallmark of a macroprudential approach is its emphasis on the interdependencies among firms and markets that have the potential to undermine the stability of the financial system, including the linkages that arise through short-term funding markets and other counterparty relationships, such as over-the-counter derivatives contracts. A comprehensive regulatory approach must examine those interdependencies as well as the financial conditions of individual firms in isolation.”

BOTTOM LINE? IT COULD HAVE BEEN WORSE

“…. the outcome could have been decidedly worse. Unlike in the 1930s, when policy was largely passive and political divisions made international economic and financial cooperation difficult, during the past year monetary, fiscal, and financial policies around the world have been aggressive and complementary. Without these speedy and forceful actions, last October’s panic would likely have continued to intensify, more major financial firms would have failed, and the entire global financial system would have been at serious risk….[W]hat we know about the effects of financial crises suggests that the resulting global downturn could have been extraordinarily deep and protracted. “

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