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5 lessons of the Great Recession

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Despite all this, the crisis – and the flow of money – continued into 2009, as Mr. Bush handed the presidency to Barack Obama.

"At that point, the US government had already provided a mix of guarantees and capital that backstopped between $10 [trillion] and $30 trillion in financial assets. It was the most extraordinary set of broader guarantees and funding commitments deployed ever ... no precedent for it," says one former senior member of the Obama economic team. "But even with all that, the economy was shrinking."

The Obama team, with Timothy Geithner as Treasury secretary and Lawrence Summers as top economic adviser, launched another wave of rescue efforts for the economy. It would include a massive fiscal stimulus from tax cuts and government spending. It also included new efforts within the Group of 20 nations to inject liquidity into banks from Asia to Europe. At the same time, the Treasury announced that major US banks would undergo "stress tests" to see if they needed more capital.

Finally, in March, the stock market hit bottom and – though investors didn't know it at the time – a devastating bear market began to recede. The crisis slowly eased.

Many critics, notably conservatives, thought the Fed and Treasury had spun out of control alongside financial markets. But few finance experts think the economy would be in a better place today without those institutions opening their checkbooks to invest and spend when others wouldn't. Given all that, it's notable that the Dodd-Frank law, if anything, makes it harder for the government to act in the lender role.

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