After a slow and stumbling start, official Washington is scrambling to try to prevent the unfolding mortgage crisis from pushing the country into recession during an election year. There is a strong feeling, though, that the government will need to do more to avert a financial disaster.
One former Treasury secretary advocates temporary tax cuts and emergency spending on the order of $50 billion to $75 billion. Such action could help the U.S. from slipping into what Lawrence Summers, who served under President Clinton, fears could become the worst downturn since the steep 1981-82 recession.
Some Republicans are worried, too.
From both Martin Feldstein, who was President Reagan's top economic adviser, and former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan have come calls for deeper government intervention to deal with the threat.
Before it is all over, the government may have to resort to measures last used in the savings and loan crisis of the 1990s. Back then, it was a new agency to take over failing thrifts sunk by bad loans. Today, it could mean a government agency to buy up billions of dollars of mortgage-backed securities that investors are shunning.
The Bush administration thus far has opted for less dramatic measures. In fact, the administration came reluctantly to the biggest step taken to date — the "teaser freezer" announced two weeks ago.
A deal with the mortgage industry will freeze the low introductory "teaser" rates for five years on some subprime mortgages — loans to people with spotty credit histories. The rates were to climb much higher, making the mortgages unaffordable for many people and putting their homes at risk of foreclosure.
The hope is that this agreement will buy time for the housing market to rebound. That would make it easier for these homeowners to refinance to more affordable fixed-rate loans.
But estimates are that only about 250,000 people will end up getting a rate freeze — a fraction of the 3.5 million home loans that could go into default over the next 2 1/2 years.
The administration also is working with Congress to increase the $417,000 cap on the size of loans that the big mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac can handle. This step could help in high-cost housing areas such as California.
In addition, the administration is supporting legislation that would boost aid to lower-income homeowners by increasing the scope of mortgage insurance programs handled by the Federal Housing Administration.
These efforts may help at the margins. They do not, however, address one of the biggest threats to the economy: a spreading credit crisis triggered by the soaring defaults on subprime mortgages.
Some of the biggest names in finance have suffered multibillion-dollar losses as a result, and critical segments of the credit markets have frozen up. Banks and investors fear making further loans or buying securities backed by debt because they do not know how many more loans might go into default.
Ben Bernanke, facing his first major test as Fed chairman, is getting mixed reviews. The Fed was embarrassed when the credit crisis hit in August. That happened only two days after the central bank had decided to keep interest rates unchanged and declared that inflation was a bigger risk than weak economic growth.
The Fed has cut interest rates by a full percentage point since that time. But only the September cut — a bigger-than-expected one-half of a percentage point — elicited cheers on Wall Street. The two quarter-point moves brought about market declines as investors worried the Fed did not recognize the severity of the problem.
The trouble is that the credit crisis is occurring at the same time that a run-up in energy prices is increasing inflationary pressures.
And that is the dilemma.
If the Fed cuts interest rates to keep the economy out of a recession, it could sow the seeds for higher inflation and perhaps give the country the worst of both worlds, bringing back that 1970s bugaboo, "stagflation," in which growth is stagnant and inflation is getting worse.
In a novel approach, the Fed is auctioning off money to the banks in an attempt to get them to open up their loan spigots. The first two auctions, for a total of $40 billion last week, went well. But the amount of the cash provided to the banks paled in comparison with the $500 billion from the European Central Bank.
Many economists believe the Fed will have to cut its federal funds rate, the interest that banks charge each other, at least three more times and strengthen the wording of its statements. In that way, the markets would know the Fed will do whatever is needed to fight economic weakness in spite of its lingering worries about inflation.
"The difference between a soft economy and a recession is confidence. If the Fed appears reticent to do what is needed, like they did at their last meeting, that does not help confidence," says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com.
As for the administration and Congress, a tax cut possibly in the form of a rebate probably will be debated in the coming year. President Bush told reporters at the White House on Thursday that "we're constantly analyzing options available to us." He insisted that the economy's underlying fundamentals remained strong.
Summers, however, in a speech last week, urged bolder action. "For the last year, the economic consensus, and the policy actions that have flowed from it, has been consistently behind the curve," he said.
Gaining some currency is the idea of a government agency modeled after the Resolution Trust Corp. of the S&L days that would buy up mortgage-backed securities as a way of dealing with bad loans. About $100 billion in such loans have surfaced and an additional $200 billion are likely, according to market estimates.
If the government spent $150 billion to $200 billion to purchase mortgage-backed securities, the thinking goes, it would prevent a fire-sale that would drive prices of these securities even lower.
When the housing market stabilizes, the price of the government-held securities would begin to rise, allowing the government to sell them back to investors.
Whatever approach the government decides to take, economists said it will take time for the current problems to resolve themselves. They expect this housing downturn, which followed a five-year boom, to last through most of next year even under a best-case scenario in which the country avoids a full-blown recession.
"We have the fundamental problem that we built too many houses and we charged too high a price for them," says David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor's in New York. "We have to stop building houses for a while and the prices have to come down. We are trying to make sure that process doesn't derail the rest of the economy."