In sum, this is not an economy that is well positioned to deal with a shock from abroad, let alone a major one. Its ability to absorb a systemic shock has been worn down by persistent internal economic weaknesses and the agility needed to sidestep, or at least minimize the impact of the shock, has been eroded by slow economic policy responses and stretched balance sheets.
All this helps to explain America’s concern about Europe’s debt crisis, which has led to periodic selloffs in capital markets and warnings from policymakers. It also speaks to why some commentators have gone as far to suggest that the country faces another “Lehman Moment” — a devastating shock that totally paralyzes the economy, disrupts the functioning of the financial system and pushes the country to the verge of a great depression.
This situation was last faced in the fourth quarter of 2008 following the disorderly collapse of Lehman Brothers, the investment bank. As illustrated by various recounts of those nervous months, policymakers came very close to losing complete control of the situation, despite all the firepower at their disposals.
Indeed, if it weren’t for the aggressive use of what was at that time a relatively healthy public sector balance sheet (especially that of the central bank’s), the US would have been forced into temporarily shutting down its financial system (including by declaring a “bank holiday”) and experiencing an economic depression which, according to some, would have been worse than that of the 1930s.
The question of the “Lehman Moment” becomes even more important now that policymakers have less firepower at their disposal to counter a huge shock. So what should we expect in the months ahead?
To be sure, the European debt crisis is a serious political, economic and financial engineering predicament that is hard to solve. As such, it will likely get worse before it gets better. In the process, it will slow global economic growth, increase risk premiums and darken the cloud over the health of the financial sector in Europe.
None of this is welcome news to an American economy that urgently needs to create jobs. But it need not result in a repeat of the total Lehman paralysis provided three conditions are met: a banking system that remains robust, no disruptions to money market funds and limited blockage to the plumbing of the country’s payments and settlement system.
Chairman Bernanke has spoken publicly to all three. Noting the Fed’s focus on these issues, he has indicated that the US does not face a new Lehman Moment.
Published data, to the extent that they are comprehensive and accurate, support his view; as do the actions taken by certain institutions. But risks remain, particularly within a money market complex starved for yield, and where certain firms appear to have stretched far and wide for extra returns.
A small risk of a catastrophic event should never be ignored. Accordingly, there is no room here for any complacency among policymakers whose economic management to date has fallen far short of what is needed to create jobs and put the country back on the path of high and sustained economic growth. Indeed, Europe serves to amplify warning sirens that have been ringing for a while.
Let us all hope that the increasing volume of the alarm will finally push America to design and implement the type of holistic measures that are desperately needed and long overdue. In the meantime, risk-averse companies, households and investors are justified in taking some extra precautionary steps.