“The lesson from the last crisis is that we had elevated unemployment for years, and it was a slow grind to work that down,” Robert S. Kaplan, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, said in an interview Monday, explaining that he supports extending fiscal aid. “We have a chance here, if we act quickly, to mitigate the lasting damage that we saw.”
The post-financial crisis pullback in government spending was even more dramatic in Europe, where austerity was enforced across countries with weaker economies and higher debt levels, and where the European Central Bank raised interest rates in 2011, removing monetary support years before the Fed first lifted rates in late 2015. Another slump ensued across European economies, bringing with it years of high unemployment, low inflation and weak growth.
There are important differences between the two crisis eras, especially in the United States. The economy was far stronger before the pandemic hit than in 2007, when inflated home prices, risky lending and financial engineering left the banking system vulnerable. And policymakers responded far more quickly and aggressively this time around.
The Fed cut interest rates close to zero in March, before data showing widespread economic damage had even begun to emerge. In the last crisis, the Fed didn’t take that step until the end of 2008, a year after the recession had begun. The European Central Bank rolled out massive bond-buying programs, something monetary policymakers in the currency block resisted in the immediate aftermath of the 2009 crisis.
But central banks have less room to adjust their policies to bolster growth now than they did a decade ago. Interest rates and inflation have fallen to low levels across advanced economies, stealing potency from monetary policy tools that work by making credit cheap.
That’s where fiscal policy — elected officials’ ability to tax and spend — comes in. Economic theory suggests that fiscal policy can be effective at times when monetary policy is not.
Initially, policymakers across advanced economies seemed far more willing to spend heavily and amass huge deficits than they were during the last crisis, at least in part because the same low interest rates robbing central banks of their power have made payments on government debt cheaper.