With a flawed diagnosis of the causes of the crisis, it is hardly surprising that many policymakers have failed to understand its progression. Today’s failure of confidence is based on three related issues: the solvency of banks, their ability to fund themselves in illiquid markets and the health of the real economy. The bursting of the housing bubble has led to hefty credit losses: most Western financial institutions are short of capital and some are insolvent. But liquidity is a more urgent problem. America’s decision last month to let Lehman Brothers fail—and the losses that implied to money-market funds that held its debt—prompted a global run on wholesale credit markets. It has become hard for banks, even healthy ones, to find finance; large companies with healthy cash flows have also been cut off from all but the shortest-term financing. That has increased worries about the real economy, which itself adds to the worries about banks’ solvency.
This analysis suggests that governments must attack all three concerns at once. The priority, in terms of stemming the panic, is to unblock clogged credit markets. In most cases that means using central banks as an alternative source of short-term cash. This week the Fed took another step in that direction: by buying commercial paper, it is now in effect lending direct to companies. The British approach is equally bold. Alongside the Bank of England’s provision of short-term cash, the Treasury says it will sell guarantees for as much as ￡250 billion ($430 billion) of new short-term and medium-term debts issued by the banks. That is risky: if left for any length of time, those pledges give banks an incentive to behave recklessly. But a temporary guarantee system offers the best chance of stemming the panic, and if it were internationally co-ordinated it would be both more credible and less risky than a collection of disparate national promises.
The second prong of a crisis-resolution strategy must aim to boost banks’ capital. A new IMF report suggests Western banks need some $675 billion of new equity to prevent banks from rapidly reducing the number of loans on their books and hurting the real economy. Although there is plenty of private capital sloshing around, there is a chicken-and-egg problem: nobody wants to buy equity in an industry without enough capital. It is becoming abundantly clear that government funds—or at least government intervention—will be necessary to catalyse the rebuilding of banks’ balance sheets. Initially, America focused more on buying tainted assets from banks; now it seems keener on the “European” approach of injecting capital into their banks. Some degree of divergence is inevitable, but more co-ordination is needed.
Third, policymakers should act together to cushion the economic fallout. Now that commodity prices have plunged, the inflation risk has dramatically receded across the rich world. With asset prices plummeting and economies shrinking, deflation will soon be a bigger worry. The interest-rate cuts are an important start. Ideally, policymakers would not use only monetary policy. For instance, China could do a lot to help the rest of the world economy (and itself) by loosening fiscal policy and allowing its currency to appreciate more quickly.