Global capital markets have seized up. Confidence is evaporating. Put simply, no lender trusts any borrower to repay, fearing that that borrower won’t be able to rely on anyone else to honor obligations. Even banks are hoarding cash, unwilling to lend to other banks. Everyone with any savings is heading for the hills — for gold, for under the mattress, for wherever savings can be watched. We’re witnessing a huge international bank run. We have not seen a global financial crisis on this scale since the 1930s.
What’s happened? Put simply, the Bailout of All Bailouts has been a dud, at least so far. Most obviously, it hasn’t done what it was intended to do — reassure financial markets that the Treasury and the Fed would have enough money to handle any financial crisis.
So it’s everyone and every institution — and every country — for itself. Several nations (Ireland, Greece, Germany) have basically guaranteed all deposits. As a result, global capital is moving their way. They’re also thereby creating a new form of socialized capitalism. At the rate they’re going, these nations will soon own and run their financial markets, and maybe a big chunk of the world’s.
I fault Hank Paulson, first and foremost. He never succeeded in explaining to anyone what exactly he’ll do with the bailout money — how, for example, an auction to acquire mortgage-backed bad debt would work, and whether and to what extent he’s planning to recapitalize the banking system. Even now, the American public has no idea what he’s up to. Nor, for that matter, do many insiders.
Leadership isn’t just about passing a big piece of legislation. It’s about explaining and thereby gaining trust and confidence from a public — including a global public — that’s otherwise afraid and confused. A credible and powerful explanation is necessary right now — about where we’ve been, how we got into this mess, and how a particular plan (in this case, the bailout), will get us out of it. Yet Paulson has proven himself uniquely unable to explain anything to anyone. George W. Bush, for his part, is hopeless and hapless. Worse than a lame duck, he’s a seriously disabled parakeet, with no remaining store of public trust. Ben Bernanke seems like an able fellow but his capacity to communicate is almost as bad as his predecessor’s. Congressional leaders are too busy pointing fingers of blame to be capable of explaining much of anything and summoning confidence. And fewer than three weeks before a national election, both candidates are inevitably caught up in partisan wrangling. Obama does understand what’s happening, and could calm global capital markets if he were already president. But he is not president as yet, nor even president-elect.
The leadership vacuum could not happen at a worse time. If credit markets remain frozen, we’ll soon witness a huge round of business bankruptcies. We’re in completely uncharted terrain.
Originally published at Robert Reich’s Blog on Oct 6, 2008 and reproduced here with the author’s permission.