Was the 'Credit Crunch' a Myth Used to Sell a Trillion-Dollar Scam?
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Whether good borrowers can't get credit from banks because the latter are hoarding cash or lending has stopped because of a drop-off in demand for new loans is not some wonky academic debate; it's of crucial significance. Because if lending to qualified parties has truly frozen, then even if the specific implementation of the Paulson Plan was deeply flawed, its broad approach -- "recapitalizing" banks in various ways, buying up some of their crappy paper and guaranteeing some of their transactions -- is fundamentally sound.
If, on the other hand, the primary problem is that people are broke and maxed out on debt, and firms aren't looking for money to expand, then the kind of massive stimulus package being considered by the Obama transition team and congressional Dems -- largely designed to stimulate demand from the bottom up, with public works projects, tax cuts for working families, aid to tapped-out state and municipal governments and new money for unemployment and food stamps -- is obviously the best approach to take.
Broadly speaking, these are the parameters of the debate in Washington, and that means that properly diagnosing the underlying problem is crucially important.
Is the Credit Crunch a Big Lie?
There's plenty of evidence that Baker's right. He points out that even though mortgage rates have plummeted, the number of applications for new loans has dropped to very low levels and argues it's "the most glaring refutation of the claim that people are unable to get credit." If creditworthy applicants were being denied loans by banks unable or unwilling to lend, Baker explains, "then the ratio of mortgage applications to home sales should be soaring" as qualified homebuyers apply to multiple banks for a loan. "Since there is no notable increase in this ratio, access to credit is obviously not an issue."
Again, this is common sense. Consumer spending drives about 70 percent of the U.S. economy, and in recent years, much of that spending was financed by people taking chunks of home equity out of their properties -- people might have been eating in fancy restaurants, but they were essentially eating their living rooms to do so.
That the American people don't have the appetite to go deeper into debt than they already are in order to make new purchases is hard to dispute. In November, consumer prices across the board fell at a record rate for the second month in a row. And even with mortgage rates plummeting, so many homeowners are "underwater" -- owing more on their homes than they're worth -- that they're unable to refinance because the equity isn't there. Paul Schuster, a vice president at Marketplace Home Mortgage, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press , "What I'm really concerned about is the job picture ... If (people) don't feel good about their jobs, rates aren't going to matter."
The National Federal of Independent Business' November survey of small-business owners found no evidence of a credit crunch to date, concluding that if "credit is going untapped, it's largely because company operators are not choosing to pursue the credit. It's not that companies can't get the extra money, it's that they don't want or need it because of the broader slowdown in economic activity."
The credit crunch narrative -- and the justification for creating Paulson's $700 billion TARP honeypot -- is built on three related assertions: 1) banks, fearing that they'll be unable to meet their own financial obligations, aren't lending money to one another; 2) they're also not lending to the public at large -- neither to firms nor individuals; and 3) businesses are further unable to raise money through ordinary channels because investors aren't eager to buy up corporate debt, including commercial paper issued by companies with decent balance sheets.