NEW YORK – It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the United States’ financial system – indeed, global finance – is in a mess. And now, with the US House of Representatives having rejected the Bush administration’s proposed $700 billion bailout plan, it is also obvious that there is no consensus on how to fix it.
The problems in the US economy and financial system have been apparent for years. But that didn’t prevent America’s leaders from turning to the same people who helped create the mess, who didn’t see the problems until they brought us to the brink of another Great Depression, and who have been veering from one bail-out to another, to rescue us.
As global markets plummet, some version of the rescue plan will almost certainly be put to another vote in Congress. Unless the plan is markedly different from the current one, while it may help Wall Street, what about the economy? What about taxpayers, already beleaguered by unprecedented deficits, and with bills still to pay for decaying infrastructure and two wars? In such circumstances, is there any bailout plan that can work?
To be sure, the rescue plan that was just defeated was far better than what the Bush administration originally proposed. But its basic approach remained critically flawed. First, it relied – once again – on trickle-down economics: somehow, throwing enough money at Wall Street would trickle down to Main Street, helping ordinary workers and homeowners. Trickle-down economics almost never works, and it is no more likely to work this time.
Moreover, the plan assumed that the fundamental problem was one of confidence. That is no doubt part of the problem; but the underlying problem is that financial markets made some very bad loans. There was a housing bubble, and loans were made on the basis of inflated prices.
That bubble has burst. House prices probably will fall further, so there will be more foreclosures, and no amount of talking up the market is going to change that. The bad loans, in turn, have created massive holes in banks’ balance sheets, which have to be repaired. Any government bailout that pays fair value for these assets will do nothing to repair that hole. On the contrary, it would be like providing massive blood transfusions to a patient suffering from vast internal hemorrhaging.
Even if a bailout plan were implemented quickly – which appears increasingly unlikely – there would be some credit contraction. The US economy has been sustained by a consumption boom fueled by excessive borrowing, and that will be curtailed. States and localities are cutting back expenditures. Household balance sheets are weaker. An economic slowdown will exacerbate all our financial problems.
We could do more with less money. The holes in financial institutions’ balance sheets should be filled in a transparent way. The Scandinavian countries showed the way two decades ago. Warren Buffet showed another way, in providing equity to Goldman Sachs. By issuing preferred shares with warrants (options), one reduces the public’s downside risk and ensures that they participate in some of the upside potential.
This approach is not only proven, but it also provides both the incentives and wherewithal needed for lending to resume. It avoids the hopeless task of trying to value millions of complex mortgages and the even more complex financial products in which they are embedded, and it deals with the “lemons” problem – the government gets stuck with the worst or most overpriced assets. Finally, it can be done far more quickly.
At the same time, several steps can be taken to reduce foreclosures. First, housing can be made more affordable for poor and middle-income Americans by converting the mortgage deduction into a cashable tax credit. The government effectively pays 50% of the mortgage interest and real estate taxes for upper-income Americans, yet does nothing for the poor. Second, bankruptcy reform is needed to allow homeowners to write down the value of their homes and stay in their houses. Third, government could assume part of a mortgage, taking advantage of its lower borrowing costs.
By contrast, US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s approach is another example of the kind of shell games that got America into its mess. Investment banks and credit rating agencies believed in financial alchemy – the notion that significant value could be created by slicing and dicing securities. The new view is that real value can be created by un-slicing and un-dicing – pulling these assets out of the financial system and turning them over to the government. But turning them over to the government at market value doesn’t improve banks’ balance sheet; to do that requires overpaying for the assets, a transfer of wealth from ordinary taxpayers to the banks..
In the end, there is a high likelihood that if such a plan is ultimately adopted, American taxpayers will be left on the hook. In environmental economics, there is a basic principle, called “the polluter pays principle.” It is a matter of both equity and efficiency. Wall Street has polluted the economy with toxic mortgages. It should pay for the cleanup.
There is a growing consensus among economists that any $750 billion bailout based on Paulson’s plan won’t by itself do the trick of resuscitating our economy. If so, the huge increase in the national debt and the realization that even $700 billion is not enough to rescue the US economy will erode confidence further and aggravate its weakness.
But it is impossible for politicians to do nothing in such a crisis. So we may have to pray that a agreement crafted with the toxic mix of special interests, misguided economics, and right-wing ideologies that produced the crisis can somehow produce a rescue plan that works – or whose failure doesn’t do too much damage.
Getting things right – including a new regulatory system that reduces the likelihood that such a crisis will recur – is one of the many tasks to be left to the next administration.