The global financial crisis that started with the bursting of the housing bubble in the U.S. in 2007 imposed both direct and indirect costs on the working and middle class populations. The direct costs are those associated with the bail-out of financial institutions, which will ultimately be borne by the taxpayers; the indirect costs are those associated with the ensuing economic crisis and the deep and prolonged recession that came in its wake, which, again, will be mostly borne by the working class population. While both costs lead to increasing deficits, and over time accumulating debt, of the federal government, they are of vastly unequal magnitudes. The direct cost (i.e., the costs associated with bailing out the financial institutions immediately after the crisis) is much smaller than the indirect cost (i.e., the cost, in terms of rising unemployment and government deficit if one considers the latter a cost, arising due to the recession); the contribution of the bail-out funds to the build-up of sovereign debt, in the US (and Europe), is minuscule compared to the contribution of the indirect cost (the widening gap between tax receipts and government outlays caused by the recession).
Many people on the left, by emphasizing the cost of bailing out financial institutions (and its contribution to sovereign debt build-up), target the wrong, and smaller, costs. There are two senses in which targeting the bail out funds is incorrect. First, the magnitude of those costs are small compared to the indirect costs. Second, if the direct costs had not been incurred, i.e., if the system continued to be organized around capitalist lines and the financial system had not been bailed out, the ensuing recession would have been deeper and hence the indirect costs, ultimately borne by the working and middle class people, even higher.
It is important to be clear that the workings of the financial sector under capitalism imposes enormous costs on the working and middle class people not only because it needs to be bailed out when the system hits the fan, as happened in 2008. The financial sector imposes much larger costs by the sheer magnitude of the externality of its actions on the working class, by the structural refusal to internalize the costs of its speculative activities, by increasing the financial fragility of the system when the bubble is inflating and ushering in the deep and prolonged recession that inevitably arrives when the bubble bursts. The direct cost of bailing out the financial system when the crisis breaks out is small compared to the indirect cost that comes from the externality of its casino-like activities. In fact, if the financial system had not been bailed out, the indirect costs would have been even higher because the recession would have almost certainly turned into a depression (of the magnitude that the world witnessed during the 1930s).
Let us study the US economy and try to understand the difference between the direct and indirect costs of the financial crisis of 2008-09. Recall that the the housing bubble in the US started deflating from around late 2006 (Figure 1). The securitization process that had built itself on the shaky foundations of the housing bubble started unraveling within a year, and the financial crisis broke out in real earnest in 2008. The financial system went into panic, credit markets froze (as banks stopped lending to each other and to nonfinancial firms) and this sent shock-waves through the US government and the Federal Reserve circles. Monetary policy had already kicked in at least an year ago, with the Fed slashing short term interest rates and making liquidity available to the financial system (see Figure 2). But this was clearly not enough.
To unfreeze credit markets and deal with the growing panic, the US Treasury department adopted the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) in early October 2008. The conceptualization of the TARP went through two rounds. In the first round, the US Treasury argued that the TARP should buy out the toxic assets (i.e., assets that drew its value from the housing market like mortgage backed securities, the collateraized debt obligations, etc., and were now more or less worthless) from financial institutions to restore confidence in the financial markets and prevent widespread bankruptcies. Very soon it became clear that this strategy would not work because it was impossible to ascertain the “true” value of the toxic assets. In other words, it was not clear at what price the assets should be bought for by the US Treasury. Hence, this strategy was abandoned and in the second round of iteration, TARP was conceptualized as a recapitalization program. This entailed lending money (or other liquid assets like Treasury bills) to financial institutions but in return taking ownership shares of those institutions.
The bail out of the financial institutions that we now talk about is precisely TARP as a method to recapitalize financial institutions, in particular banks, credit market institutions, the automobile industry and the insurance giant AIG, by injecting fresh capital into their balance sheets in lieu of ownership shares. How much money was involved? Initially, TARP was thought to involve $700 billion. But, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act reduced the maximum authorization for the TARP from $700 billion to $475 billion. The TARP ended on October 3, 2010 and had by then disbursed only a total of $411 billion. Of this, 77%, i.e., $318 billion, has already been recovered through repayments, dividends, interest and other income earnings of the US Treasury.
In fact, the part of TARP funds that was lent to banks has already been recovered with a profit: a total of $245 billion was invested in banks, and it has been recovered with a profit of about $20 billion. It is estimated that the overall cost of TARP, after all recoveries are taken into account, will amount to $70 billion, only about a tenth of the original amount of $700 billion. Hence, it is clear that the overall contribution of the TARP (the bailing-out of the financial system) to the deficit (and outstanding debt) of the US government is not large. The direct cost of the financial crisis, in terms of the funds required to bail out the financial system during the peak of the crisis, is not very large when compared to the indirect cost, to which we now turn.
(Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis,
The indirect cost arose because of the magnification of the effects of a downturn into a deep and prolonged recession, the magnification being caused by the fragility of the financial system. Unemployment rates went through the roof and continues to be at historically high levels despite the official end of the recession in the second quarter of 2009; the labour force participation rates have fallen due to discouraged unemployed workers dropping out of the labour force; the median duration of unemployment has increased to extremely high levels; the share of long term unemployed workers has grown to postwar highs (see Figure 3 and 4 for some details).
(Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis,
While it might be difficult to accurately quantify these losses, it seems clear that they are far higher than the $70 loss that the taxpayer will be saddled with due to the bail out of the financial sector. For instance, some studies suggest that about 7 million workers have been displaced from long-term employment during the Great Recession, only a subset of all workers who have been adversely hit by job losses. These 7 million workers will experience an income loss of about $774 billion over the next 25 years.
In a similar vein, the contribution of the direct investment from TARP to the growth of the fiscal deficit is small compared to the contribution due to the recession. Figure 5 plots the net outlays (i.e., net of interest payments of its debt) of the federal government, the receipts of the federal government and the difference between the two for the period 2006-2011. It can be seen from Figure 5 that the major jump in the deficit occurred between 2007 and 2009, a period during which it increased by about $1252 billion. This increase was the result of an increase in net outlays (i.e., expenditure) by about $788 billion and a fall in receipts of around $463 billion. Even assuming that the total $411 billion disbursed by the US Treasury for the TARP had occurred during that period (which it clearly did not), it is only about a third of the increase of the federal deficit during that period. Thus, close to (or more than) two-thirds of the increase in the federal government deficit was the result of non-bail out costs.
(Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis,
Looking at the plots of the outlays and receipts of the US federal government in Figure 5, we clearly see that the two series have diverged significantly since the start of the Great Recession. Even though net outlays (i.e., expenditures) have flattened out since 2010, receipts (i.e., tax revenues) have not picked up in any major way. Thus, the gap between the two continues to be big, in excess of $1000 billion every year. This huge gap is what lies behind the deficit and mounting debt of the US government, not the $70 billion that will be the net cost of the TARP. It is more or less certain that a similar account would be accurate for Europe also, i.e., the largest portion of the debt of Eurozone governments would be the result of indirect costs and not the direct cost of bailing out the financial sector during the crisis of 2008.
To conclude, let me summarize the argument. It is important to distinguish between the direct costs (i.e., bail out of the financial sector through the TARP) and indirect costs (rise in unemployment and the growth of the government debt due to the deep and prolonged recession) of the financial crisis and focus on the second rather than the first. This is because the second is much larger in magnitude than the first. In fact, it is not even clear that the first can be considered a cost because without bailing out the financial sector via recapitalization (or temporary and partial nationalization), the recession would certainly have been deeper, increasing the burden on the working people. In addition, concentrating on the second cost allows us to focus on the systemic aspect of the costs that the financial sector, in its speculative avatar, imposes on the working and middle class population of a country. This forces us to conceptualize an alternative that is likewise systemic in nature and goes beyond arguing against bail out of financial sector firms.
Deepankar Basu is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts.