NEW YORK — Washington's financial bailout plan is now law. So the credit spigot will start flowing again, banks will resume lending, and an economic recovery can begin, right?
Wrong. Experts say the most important thing that needs to happen before the $700-billion bailout even has a chance of working: Home prices must stop falling. That would send a signal to banks that the worst has passed and it's safe to start doling out money again.
The problem is the lending freeze has made getting a mortgage loan tough for everyone except those with sterling credit. That means it will take several months or longer to pare down the glut of houses built when times were good — and those that have come on the market because of soaring foreclosures — before home prices start appreciating.
Housing is a crucial component to the U.S. economy and by extension the availability of credit. Roughly one in eight U.S. jobs depends on housing directly or indirectly — from construction workers to bank loan officers to big brokers on Wall Street. A turnaround in housing prices would boost confidence in the wider economy and, experts hope, goad banks into lending again.
"Housing traditionally does lead the economy through a recovery. I think it's going to be critical for a sustained recovery in this cycle, too," said Gary Thayer, senior economist at Wachovia Securities.
Meanwhile, people like Alicia Elliott are adjusting to a new American reality: life without credit.
The 21-year old Morgantown, W.Va., resident just bought a used mobile home, borrowing $4,000 from friends and family because she couldn't get a bank loan.
"I tried to. Couldn't do it. It's just hard to get a loan," said Elliott, who works as a cashier at a Lowe's Cos. store.
She used to get bombarded with offers for credit cards. Now she can't even get one. "I get denied one after another after another. It doesn't matter if you have a co-signer or not," she said.
Trey Simmons, a 31-year-old barber at a Dallas hair salon, said he worries tighter lending standard will squash his goal of buying a home next year.
"Credit is a privilege everybody can't get," he said. "I had credit at a young age and messed up."
He now operates on a strictly cash basis. "If I don't have it," he said, "I don't spend it."
The problem boils down to a matter of trust.
"Credit, by definition, means trust and faith, and for many reasons trust and faith have been damaged," said Sung Won Sohn, an economics professor at California State University at Channel Islands.
Sohn said the near certainty of a recession makes it too risky for the thousands of small and medium-sized banks across the country to lend to people like Elliot.
"Banks know the economy is getting worse, so … they will keep being cautious," said Sohn, a former banking executive.
Still, the government hopes that by scooping up billions of dollars in bad mortgage debt and other toxic assets, banks eventually can clean up their shaky balance sheets, crack open the vaults and send money washing through the system again.
The rescue plan also raises the federally insured deposit limit from $100,000 to $250,000, a move that could boost banks' reserves and further grease the lending wheels.
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the Financial Services Committee chairman and a key negotiator over the past weeks, said the measure was just the beginning of a much larger task Congress will tackle next year: overhauling housing policy and financial regulation in a legislative effort comparable to the New Deal.