President Obama is urging Congress to pass an $825 billion stimulus package as soon as possible. But even that may not be enough to stabilize the economy, since it fails to take into account the downward spiral of animal spirits that is underway and may continue to worsen.
The term "animal spirits," popularized by John Maynard Keynes in his 1936 book "The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money," is related to consumer or business confidence, but it means more than that. It refers also to the sense of trust we have in each other, our sense of fairness in economic dealings, and our sense of the extent of corruption and bad faith. When animal spirits are on ebb, consumers do not want to spend and businesses do not want to make capital expenditures or hire people.
Fiscal policy adjustments are what almost all the pundits and the economic policy advisers have in mind when they say now is the time to pursue Keynesian policies. Especially now, when conventional monetary policy is ineffective, since short-term interest rates on safe assets are close to zero, Keynesian theory would argue that the government should have a fiscal target. If spending would otherwise be less than full employment GDP, the government should put more money into people's pockets.
But lost in the economics textbooks, and all but lost in the thousands of pages of the technical economics literature, is this other message of Keynes regarding why the economy fluctuates as much as it does. Animal spirits offer an explanation for why we get into recessions in the first place -- for why the economy fluctuates as it does. It also gives some hints regarding what we need to do now to get out of the current crisis.
A critical aspect of animal spirits is trust, an emotional state that dismisses doubts about others. In talking about animal spirits, Keynes sought to convey the message that swings in confidence are not always logical. The business cycle is in good part driven by animal spirits. There are good times when people have substantial trust and associated feelings that contribute to an environment of confidence. They make decisions spontaneously. They believe instinctively that they will be successful, and they suspend their suspicions. As long as large groups of people remain trusting, people's somewhat rash, impulsive decision-making is not discovered.
Unfortunately, we have just passed through a period in which confidence was blind. It was not based on rational evidence. The trust in our mortgage and housing markets that drove real-estate prices to unsustainable heights is one of the most dramatic examples of unbridled animal spirits we have ever seen.
Furthermore, while animal spirits have been high over a very long period of time, a whole new system for the granting of credit had been generated. Some 30 or 40 years ago there was much less intermediation in financial markets. But then along came financial innovation and a new financial system, not just in mortgages and housing but throughout the credit system, with complicated strategies of securitization and use of derivatives. The more complex the transaction the more trust is needed to sustain the transaction.
Then too, over the past several decades a vast "shadow" banking sector developed that engaged in the purchase and sale of such securities. To a great extent these traders borrowed short term at low interest rates against collateral of asset-backed securities, of which residential mortgage-backed securities would be just one example. What enabled them to do that? It was the animal spirits. Those who loaned short to the shadow banking sector were confident. They thought they would be repaid. (They also thought they could insure against loss by the purchase of derivatives). They were trusting. But as soon as these lenders lost their confidence they were no longer trusting. It was like a classic bank run, but this time not on the formal banking sector but on those who borrowed short, and loaned long -- on the shadow banking sector. Lenders to the shadow banking sector wanted to be the first not to renew their loans.
The trust in the innovative lending practices was excessive; now that trust is replaced by deep mistrust. The wreckage of formerly towering financial institutions is all around us. Evidence of our overconfidence repeatedly appears in media stories, and thus we are constantly reminded that we were foolish to have been so trusting.
The danger at this point is that if the actions we take are not aggressive enough to have a substantial, visible impact on the economy, then confidence will continue to plummet. The Obama administration estimated its initial $775 billion stimulus package would shave about 1.8% off the unemployment rate from what it would otherwise be. Even so, by the time any package takes full effect the unemployment rate may be substantially higher than it is today.
So what must we do to revive our animal spirits and economic growth? We must be certain that programs to solve the current financial and economic crisis are large enough, and targeted broadly enough, to impact public confidence. Not only do we need a fiscal stimulus significantly greater than the proposal that is currently on the table, government action is also needed to take the place of the credit markets that seemingly worked so well when animal spirits were high. The Treasury and the Federal Reserve not only need a fiscal target, they also need a credit target. This should not be a dollar number, but rather a target for how the credit markets should behave. The goal should be that those who would normally receive credit in times of full employment can once again find it easy to do so, at rates with realistic risk premiums.
There are three ways to restore these credit markets. The Treasury and the Federal Reserve have been inventive in applying all three methods. The first is the extension of rediscounting. The Fed has invented many different special loan facilities. They have even invented ingenious ways to combine Treasury money to make very large-scale loans while still within the legal requirement that the Fed can only lend against safe collateral when using TARP funds for the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility, which will support consumer, student and small-business loans. But so far the total amount of such rediscounting has been small relative to the size of the credit markets. They need to be much larger.
Second, so far more than $250 billion of government money has been used to recapitalize banks. But just making the banks solvent is not enough. The banks, whose managers are suffering from the same flagging animal spirits as the rest of the economy, will not expand their credit much just because they are more solvent. The banks will only expand if they see profitable opportunities to grant loans and if their fear of failure is diminished. It will take much more than keeping the banks solvent to make them take on the disappeared credit flows.
And, finally, especially in considerably expanding the powers to support the lending of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, government-sponsored enterprises have replaced a significant portion of the mortgage markets. But the government should do much more here as well. For example, failed banks might be kept alive longer as bridge banks under government supervision with the purpose of making credit freely available.
The interventions so far have been in the right direction. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has been especially inventive and aggressive. But the theory of animal spirits and the loss of confidence tell us that a great deal more still needs to be done. Now is not a time for the timid. To meet our needed fiscal-policy target, the Obama administration's fiscal stimulus should be much greater. And to meet our credit target, the expansion of special loan facilities, recapitalization of banks, and use of government institutions to grant credit where it has dried up must be on a scale great enough to overwhelm further doubts about the economy.
In due course our animal spirits will once again turn positive, but we would rather that happen this year or the next rather than five or 10 years from now. There is only one way to speed this process: greatly expand governmental support of credit markets and pass a much larger fiscal stimulus plan than is now proposed.
Mr. Shiller is professor of economics at Yale University and chief economist at MacroMarkets LLC. His new book, with George Akerlof, "Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism," will be published by Princeton next month.