America may not have the tools to counter the next financial crisis, warn Bernanke, Geithner and Paulson

  • A decade after the 2008 recession, the policymakers who countered it on its front lines are worried that the U.S. may not be adequately armed for the next economic crisis.
  • Former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and former Treasury Secretaries Timothy Geithner and Henry Paulson fear Americans may have forgotten the lessons of the financial crisis.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson (L), Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke (C) and President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Timothy F. Geithner listen as FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair (not pictured) speaks at the Treasury Department Cash Room in Washington, October 14, 2008.
Hyungwon Kang | Reuters
U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson (L), Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke (C) and President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Timothy F. Geithner listen as FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair (not pictured) speaks at the Treasury Department Cash Room in Washington, October 14, 2008.

A decade after the 2008 recession, the policymakers who countered it on its front lines are worried that the U.S. may not be adequately armed for the next economic crisis.

Speaking at a roundtable discussion on Tuesday, former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and former Treasury Secretaries Timothy Geithner and Henry Paulson recounted the lessons they learned in the wake of the crisis, and where they fear Americans may have forgotten them.

“One of the most powerful lessons from this crisis should be that you want to work very hard to make sure that your defenses are robust,” Geithner was quoted by AP as telling the audience. “We let the financial system outgrow the protections we put in place in the Great Depressions and... made the system very fragile and vulnerable to panic.”

Loose banking regulations and excessive risk-taking helped plunge the U.S. into its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Nearly 9 million people were thrown out of work following the crash 10 years ago, and the slowness of the subsequent recovery, as well as exacerbated income inequality, led to widespread discontent that’s manifested itself in a broad populist backlash.

Current efforts are underway by Congressional Republicans and President Donald Trump to dismantle parts of the Dodd-Frank Act, which beefed up government regulation of the financial sector to close loopholes that enabled banks to engage in such risky behavior.

The former economic officials said that the changes so far made sense, like exempting some smaller banks from the law’s strictest requirements. Post-crisis reforms also strengthened the banking system and made it easier for big banks to be shut down rather than needing government bailouts.

But they cautioned against getting carried away with deregulation, and Geithner expressed concern that the emergency powers they were able to draw on in 2008 are “somewhat weaker” today.

Regulatory reforms placed restrictions on the Fed, the Treasury and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., ending their ability to make emergency loans to support troubled banks. The rules came in the wake of widespread public anger over the billions of taxpayer dollars provided to Wall Street in government bailouts. The policymakers chose that unpopular course of action over letting the whole banking system collapse, which they believe would have been far more disastrous.

Bernanke, who served under the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, also pointed to the nation’s ballooning deficit, criticizing the timing of the Trump administration’s tax cuts and fiscal stimulus package amid nearly full employment.

Far higher debt and deficit levels than those of a decade ago also mean there is less insulation in the event a potential stimulus package is needed. Obama in 2009 implemented the controversial American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to offset the drop in private sector spending, at a price tag of more than $800 billion.

What’s more, the Fed has less room to lower interest rates in the event that more stimulus is needed — the bank’s benchmark rate target is now just 1.75 to 2 percent compared to 5.25 percent in summer of 2007.

Still, Geithner, Bernanke and Paulson praised a now stronger banking sector and the government’s improved ability to deal with failing institutions before they need bailouts.

But the economists, echoing numerous market players and public officials, stressed their concern over U.S. debt. Publicly-held federal debt is now 77 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) — double its 2007 level.

“If we don’t act, that is the most certain fiscal or economic crisis we will have,” Paulson said. “It will slowly strangle us.”