Current Comment: The Manhattan Crisis

Financial crises have been recurring around the globe over the past three decades. The 1980s saw the Latin American debt crisis and the U.S. savings and loan crisis; the early and mid-1990s brought the European monetary crisis (tied to German reunification); and the late 1990s produced the Mexican Tequila Crisis, the Asian Flu and the Russian Virus. Now we have the Manhattan Crisis.

Globalization is often blamed for these recurring situations, but such crises were also common in previous centuries. Dutch tulip bubbles and the collapse of Mississippi shares caused major crises in the 18th century, and banking panics were common under the 19th-century classical gold standard.


Each crisis is different, of course. Unlike Mexico’s crisis, in the present case both the assets and the liabilities of the financial sector are denominated in U.S. dollars. There is no peso problem. The dollar will likely continue to adjust downward, but the movement will be more like a glider landing than a crash. This crisis will thus require a much more prolonged adjustment than the Mexican crisis.

What the current crisis has in common with past ones is uncertainty about its magnitude. To paraphrase the late Rudiger Dornbush of the Massachusetts Institute of Tech-nology, we have to step into a puddle to cross the street, but we will not know how deep it is until we step in it.

As always, doomsayers come forward. In the early 1980s, some economists talked openly about the end of the American century of progress. But the U.S. economy rebounded in the mid-80s, and the next decade was called the “roaring 90s” by Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University. In one sense, Senator John McCain is correct: the fundamentals of the U.S. economy are sound. We have flexible labor markets relative to Europe, oil prices are not climbing as fast as we feared and the American economy has always benefited from innovation.

We should not underestimate, however, or forget the costs of financial crises. The 1980s are rightly known as the “lost decade” of growth and development in Latin America. Per capita living standards remained stagnant, resulting in lost educational opportunities for hundreds of millions of young people throughout the continent. Similarly, when the Indonesian government had to bail out the banking system in the late 1990s, the cost was borne by the poorer classes.

Whatever the final form of any federal intervention, it will also have budgetary consequences. Plans of the incoming administration for health care reform, educational or energy subsidies or tax breaks will have to be put on hold, or we will pay for this intervention through inflation. We must hope that the new administration and the new Congress will recognize that fiscally their hands will be tied for several years. Institutions that rely on charitable donations will also have to tighten belts for several years or more.

A unique feature of the finance industry is that the collapse of one’s competitor is bad news rather than good, because a competitor’s failure can lead to a systemwide loss of confidence in the banking sector as a whole, with a major withdrawal of deposits and a collapse of credit and ripple (or tidal wave) effects throughout the whole economy. At times like these, central bankers earn their salary. One of the roles of a central bank is to be a lender of last resort as well as a guarantor of price stability. One central banker who emerged as a hero in the Asian financial crisis was Joseph Yam of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority. Many foreign investors assumed that the Asian meltdown would spill over into Hong Kong’s stock market. Yam used the authority’s dollar reserves to buy up shares in order to stabilize prices and calm the markets. Later, the authority was able to sell off these shares with little or no loss.

The hope is that a similar scenario will play out in the United States. This time, the Federal Bank and the U.S. Treasury are buying up nonperforming mortgage-backed securities. Because a growing population always needs housing, sooner or later real estate prices will return to fundamental values based on underlying demand and supply. But this adjustment will take time, and costs will have to be paid in the form of lost opportunities in health care, education and social development.

Is there a silver lining? The widespread consumer habit of living on heavy extended credit, for everything from vacations to new cars to household improvements, will be curtailed by the credit crunch. With less easy credit and less demand, prices will fall from their inflated levels across a variety of goods and services. Perhaps one positive result will be that more Americans will exercise greater care in their spending.

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Rene Lorio
10 years 2 months ago
Professor McNelis' is refreshing because his remarks are not conceived from a typical self aggrandizing view or a common sense born of a corporate profit model. His view provides a historical and moral prospective to our current financial crisis which is calming because it helps release our thinking from capitalism’s ego centric nature and popular culture’s “show me the money” financial values. No matter how loudly the beast cries, we will not be defined by this moment in time.
10 years 2 months ago
Rene Lorio ought to learn how to spell perspective and that egocentric is one word.
10 years 2 months ago
This article reflects a serious disconnect with low-wage earners throughout the nation. Much of the credit card debt I'm willing to bet is due to trying to make ends meet in regions where the cost of living is enormous -- such as the San Francisco/Monterey Bay area, Los Angeles, New York and similar metropolitan areas. Low-wage earners(unlike college professors)have been suffering from stagflation for at least a decade now, but it hasn't been noticed or reported by economists who focus on the macros, or economic writers who focus on macros and such data -- save Paul Krugman. It's time to remember what a living wage is, and examine what happens to those at the bottom who've not had the benefit of a living wage. It's time to review Rerum Novarum and reflect on it's timeliness even today!
10 years 2 months ago
Chris, have you been to Eastern Germany? Many of the policies aimed at increasing real wages of East German workers after German unification led to massive unemployment, poverty and despair among younger workers. The neo-pagan Goth movement is one manifestation of this despair among young people. When Kohl set the East German mark at parity with the West German mark, he essentially priced out East German workers from the labor market. The way to improve living standards for poorer workers and their children is through educational benefits and health care, (as well as improving family life, in which Churches can play a role). All of these are long-term processes. Unfortunately the bailout will retard these processes. But quick fixes like raising wages do more harm than good.
10 years 1 month ago
Professor, I don't disagree with you on the need for education and health care, they're the best use of my tax funds for our common good. However, if you could read all the articles and letters to the editor for one of the San Francisco Bay's newspapers which focuses on Silicon Valley (Santa Clara Valley) you'd read about all the educated workers with bachelors and masters degrees in engineering who are out of work. I myself, a low-wage earner, have a bachelors as well as a masters. Our nation has an abundance of educated workers along with less educated workers. This can be either a blessing or a curse. I pay taxes (had to refinance my auto, a used car, but of good quality to pay my taxes this year)and I do so gladly so that those in true need can have the benefits of education, health care, as well as the infrastructure needed for us all, but much of our tax money goes to 'other' areas. It is the savings accounts of low-wage earners that provides the assets the banking and lending institutions need, and we have not been able to keep savings because of the cost of living. This is the problem. It's not an impossible problem, but it has to be recognized at the level of policy makers as well as financial institutions. Do you agree?


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