The disagreements about proper bubble management are of more than historical interest, Roubini argues, because he sees the beginnings of another bubble already in view. He was more supportive on the whole than I would have expected about the Obama administration’s financial plans. “I have to give them credit that, less than a month after they came to power, they had achieved three major policy successes,” he said. These were passing the $800 billion stimulus plan, the mortgage-relief plan to reduce foreclosures, and the “toxic asset” plan to help banks clear bad loans from their books. He said that the initial version of the bank-rescue plan was “botched, because it was rushed,” but that the later version was better. “On each of these things, you can criticize specific elements,” he said. “But they did the big things, and those are the main parameters of what is a constructive policy response. For now, you have to deal with the problem you are facing. All in all I think the policy is going in the right direction.”
But someday, the emergency will be over. Then the side effects of today’s deficits-be-damned efforts to spend money and loosen credit will become “the problem you are facing.” Roubini has been tart about the things public officials should have known and the dangers they should have foreseen three or four years ago. What, I asked him, are the decisions of 2009 that we will be regretting in 2012?
For the only time in our conversation, he sat without responding for a measurable interval. “The regrets could be many,” he began.
, I thought. “Even the best policies sometimes have unintended consequences.” He then itemized three.
The first involved banks. Like Paul Krugman and others, Roubini had been warning that many banks were weaker than they seemed. Rather than trying to nurse them along, he said, the government should move straightaway to nationalization: “I’m concerned that we’re not going to deal with the bank problem as we should,” he said. “Some banks are insolvent. To prevent them becoming zombie banks, the government should take the problem by the horns and, on a temporary basis, nationalize them. Take over these banks, clean them up, and then sell them back to the private sector. Not doing that is one mistake we may make and regret.”
Next, “monetizing the debt.” This sounds similar to the complaint that the government is spending too much now and will regret it later on, which was the main Republican argument against the stimulus plans. Roubini’s concern is different, and mainly involves the delicate process of turning off the extraordinary stimulus measures now being turned on full force.
“The Fed is now embarked on a policy in which they are in effect directly monetizing about half of the budget deficit,” he said. The public debt is going up, and the federal government is covering about half of that total by printing new money and sending it to banks. “In the short run,” he said, “that monetization is not inflationary.” Banks are holding much of the money themselves; “they’re not relending it, so that money is not going anywhere and becoming inflationary.”