(Following on from my previous post about the economic crisis and what to do about it…)
“(1) The Treasury Secretary is authorized to buy up to $700 billion of any mortgage-related assets (so he can just transfer that amount to any corporations in exchange for their worthless or severely crippled “assets”) [Sec. 6]; (2) The ceiling on the national debt is raised to $11.3 trillion to accommodate this scheme [Sec. 10]; and (3) best of all: “Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency” [Sec. 8].
“Put another way, this authorizes Hank Paulson to transfer $700 billion of taxpayer money to private industry in his sole discretion, and nobody has the right or ability to review or challenge any decision he makes.”
$700 billion is a vast amount of money, more than most people can really grasp. To put this in perspective: if you were assigned the onerous task of spending $1000 a day, every day, without fail, you would spend a million dollars in two years and nine months… and hell, even a million is more than most of us ever have to come to terms with. However, spending at that same rate, it would take you more than 1,917,808 years to spend $700 billion.
(And let us note that $700B is not the full cost of the government’s reaction to this crisis; it’s merely the largest and latest in a long list of expensive measures, including last year’s housing bill, the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bailouts, the AIG loan, and many more. Reuters puts the cumulative total at $1.8 trillion… so far.)
Paulson’s goal is to stop the downward spiral, setting a floor on asset values by purchasing the finance sector’s risky debt. And on those limited terms, it may work… but it’s by no means a silver bullet for the underlying problem. Even analysts optimistic about the proposal expect that housing values would continue to fall by another 10-20% over the next year.
When it was first announced last Friday, the proposal seemed to receive broad welcome, and the market surged: things had seemed on the verge of collapse, and here was someone with a solution. On closer examination, however, enthusiasm outside Wall Street has waned, on both sides of the aisle.
By far the most direct objection to Paulson’s proposal, coming from many directions, is to Section 8 of the bill, the unlimited discretion it would give to Paulson himself—another reach for power by the executive branch, explicitly sidestepping any and all oversight from Congress or the judiciary. As Robert Kuttner puts it in The American Prospect,
“The deal proposed by Paulson is nothing short of outrageous. It includes no oversight of his own closed-door operations. It merely gives congressional blessing and funding to what he has already been doing, ad hoc. He plans to retain Wall Street firms as advisers to decide just how to cut deals to value and mop up Wall Street’s dubious paper. There are to be no limits on executive compensation for the firms that get relief, and no equity share for the government in exchange for this massive infusion of capital. Both Obama and McCain have opposed the provision denying any judicial review of decisions made by Paulson — a provision that evokes the Bush administration’s suspension of normal constitutional safeguards in its conduct of foreign policy and national security.”
Even some conservatives normally loyal to the administration are taking exception to this aspect, rediscovering the dangers of unfettered power and the virtue of checks and balances in a way I hadn’t expected to see until after next January 20th. When I find myself agreeing with statements made by people like Bill Kristol—or even Newt Gingrich, at least insofar as he advises Congress take a larger role and “slow down and have an open debate”—I know political times are complicated.
Even aside from abstract matters of principle, this aspect of the bill raises thorny pragmatic questions. Whose assets would Paulson choose to purchase? What would his criteria be? What prices would he offer—those most advantageous to the taxpayers, or those preferred by the financial firms? Would he be hiring “experts” from these firms themselves to administer the nuts and bolts? The conflicts of interest here are not merely potential but pervasive, as is the lack of accountability.
Some die-hard market libertarians are so completely sour on the proposal that they advise simply “letting the market work,” advising for instance that “what the Fed, Treasury, and SEC should have done was to let the chips fall as they may by allowing healthy financial institutions survive and the weak ones go bankrupt or be forced to merge.” Ron Paul has what seems to be a fairly clear take on the causes of the problem, until he quixotically blames most of it on “stifling laws and regulations that allowed the boom to form in the first place.” One might admire the ideological purity of this position, but only from a distance; it’s far too cavalier about the practical consequences for the real-world economy, including for people who were in no way culpable for the problem.
So here is what we’ve arrived at: we cannot afford to do nothing, but we also cannot afford to accept this proposal as presented. Paulson emphasizes that he wants it to be passed “quick and clean” (meaning this week, on his terms), but it’s far more important to get it right. Congress has acquiesced in the past when the Bush administration pleaded that the sky was falling, but the assertions of imminent doom have always been overwrought and the results anything but examples of responsible and effective government. The PATRIOT Act, the Military Commissions Act, the Protect America Act… and let us not forget the invasion of Iraq. We should not make another hasty mistake modeled after these.
Fortunately, there have been more open, more accountable, more balanced proposals put forward, both before and after Paulson’s. Last winter, Benn Steil, director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations, proposed that the government set up a new independent agency, charged to
“…evaluate mortgage-backed securities and classify those presented for sale in one of five tiers.
“The government would offer to pay 70 cents on the dollar for Tier A assets, 60 cents for Tier B, and so on down to 30 cents for Tier E. The goal of this setup, Steil says, is to put a floor under asset values — an event that should bolster the credibility of financial companies’ balance sheets. Setting a floor on the value of these assets could also entice the deep-pocketed opportunists who have largely kept to the sidelines — namely hedge funds and private equity funds — to enter the market, perhaps in some cases outbidding the government for the assets and thus limiting taxpayers’ exposure.”
More recently, as Sebastian Mallaby points out in a Washington Post op-ed, economics scholars have been weighing in with other alternatives:
“Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago suggest ways to force the banks to raise capital without tapping the taxpayers. First, the government should tell banks to cancel all dividend payments… Second, the government should tell all healthy banks to issue new equity… banks resist [these steps] because they don’t want to signal weakness and they don’t want to dilute existing shareholders. A government order could cut through these obstacles.
“Meanwhile, Charles Calomiris of Columbia University and Douglas Elmendorf of the Brookings Institution have offered versions of another idea. The government should help not by buying banks’ bad loans but by buying equity stakes in the banks themselves. Whereas it’s horribly complicated to value bad loans, banks have share prices you can look up in seconds, so government could inject capital into banks quickly and at a fair level. The share prices of banks that recovered would rise, compensating taxpayers for losses on their stakes in the banks that eventually went under.”
That latter point is important, as purchasing debt without an equity share not only minimizes the possible return to taxpayers but also lengthens the time it would take to see any such return. Equity, by contrast, could be used by the government to exert leverage until conditions improve, then sold off at a profit once they do. The NY Times cites this advice from multiple experts, including Douglas Elmendorf, a former Treasury and Federal Reserve Board economist, who points out that “a similar approach was used successfully in Sweden in the early 1990s when its financial system melted down.” Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research puts it more bluntly, in terms of economic justice: “It absolutely has to be punitive… If they sell us the junk, then we own the company. This isn’t a way to make these companies and their executives rich. This should be about keeping them in business so the financial system doesn’t collapse.”
Robert Reich agrees about equity and adds some other prudent conditions, most notably that “all Wall Street executives immediately cease making campaign contributions to any candidate for public office in this election cycle or next, all Wall Street PACs be closed, and Wall Street lobbyists curtail their activities unless specifically asked for information by policymakers.”
Kuttner likewise echoes the point about equity, and also recommends several other ways Congress could improve the rescue effort:
- Government equity in firms receiving assistance, in rough proportion to the amount of aid extended.
- Limits on executive compensation paid by any firm receiving the public aid.
- A recapture of the cost to the government, to be extracted from the firm’s future profits.
- A six-month sunset provision, so that the treasury secretary’s bailout authority would expire by next April 1. Any extension would be conditional on across-the-board re-regulation of financial institutions of all types.
- Creation of a small independent board, which must review and approve Paulson’s proposed deals.
- A narrower treatment of court challenges to Paulson’s actions.
- A parallel program to refinance sub-prime mortgage loans and to provide funding to municipalities and community-based nonprofits to acquire, restore, and repopulate foreclosed properties.
- At least $200 billion of new economic stimulus, in the form of aid to states, cities, and towns, for infrastructure rebuilding, more generous unemployment compensation and retraining benefits.
Several of these ideas have already been taken up by lawmakers. Senator Bernie Sanders writes that
“The current financial crisis facing our country has been caused by the extreme right-wing economic policies pursued by the Bush administration. These policies … have resulted in a massive redistribution of wealth from the middle class to the very wealthy.
“This is the most extreme example that I can recall of socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor. …In my view, we need to go forward in addressing this financial crisis by insisting on four basic principles:
(1) The people who can best afford to pay and the people who have benefited most from Bush’s economic policies are the people who should provide the funds for the bailout. …the government should:
a) Impose a five-year, 10 percent surtax on income over $1 million a year for couples and over $500,000 for single taxpayers. That would raise more than $300 billion in revenue;
b) Ensure that assets purchased from banks are realistically discounted so companies are not rewarded for their risky behavior and taxpayers can recover the amount they paid for them; and
c) Require that taxpayers receive equity stakes in the bailed-out companies so that the assumption of risk is rewarded when companies’ stock goes up.
(2) There must be a major economic recovery package which puts Americans to work at decent wages. Among many other areas, we can create millions of jobs rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure and moving our country from fossil fuels to energy efficiency and sustainable energy…
(3) Legislation must be passed which undoes the damage caused by excessive de-regulation. That means reinstalling the regulatory firewalls that were ripped down in 1999…
(4) We must end the danger posed by companies that are ‘too big too fail,’ that is, companies whose failure would cause systemic harm to the U.S. economy. If a company is too big to fail, it is too big to exist. We need to determine which companies fall in this category and then break them up.”
In the House Financial Services Committee, Rep. Barney Frank “wants to make sure members have a chance to debate the bill on the House floor” and “reiterated the demand of many Democrats to see limits on executive compensation.” His emphasis is on a bottom-up rather than exclusively top-down solution; as of today, the committee reports that he “convinced Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson that a bailout should include a way to help prevent foreclosures on mortgages the government acquires,” declaring that “the government would ‘use its authority as investor’ to encourage mortgage servicers to minimize foreclosures through existing federal programs. The proposal would help renters stay in homes headed for foreclosure and require federal agencies to report every 90 days on efforts to turn bad loans into performing ones.” This approach echoes the priorities of much of the general public: to quote one poster on a NY Times discussion page,
“What is the matter with The US Treasury? Why do they want to buy loans and securities based on loans at a steep discount and then sell the foreclosed properties to speculators? Why not a plan to allow home buyers to keep their homes, rescue their financial standing and continue to pay their obligations at the same price to the financial institutions?”
Paul Krugman suggests intervention at an intermediate point, by providing a straight infusion of capital rather than buying debts—and, again, taking a share of equity in return.
Perhaps the most comprehensive alternative proposal is the one put forward by Sen. Chris Dodd, who also took a bold stand against the administration in last winter’s FISA reform battle. Dodd’s bill:
“…requires Treasury to take an equity stake equal to the purchase price of the assets being bought. If the company isn’t publicly traded, the government would take senior debt instead, placing it in the front of the line of debt holders for repayment in the event of a bankruptcy.
“Dodd’s proposal also would create a five-member oversight board to supervise the Treasury secretary’s purchase and sale of distressed mortgage debt. It would consist of the chairmen of the Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as two members from the financial industry designated by congressional leaders.
“…The Treasury secretary would also be required to issue weekly public reports on the amount of assets bought and sold by the U.S. …
“Dodd is proposing to penalize executives who take ‘inappropriate or excessive’ risks. The executive compensation and severance packages could be reduced if that is ‘in the public interest,’ the proposal says. It would also force executives to give back profits they earned that were based on company accounting measures that are later found to be inaccurate [i.e., fraudulent].”
Dodd’s plan also involves stabilizing the market at the grass-roots level, “buying up mortgages for 15% less than the current market value of the house, then reissuing a clean mortgage to homeowners helps the banks while still giving them a slight haircut (but only slight, odds are home prices will drop more than 15% before the slide is over.)” Meanwhile, Dodd’s colleague Patrick Leahy (he of the excellent cameo in The Dark Knight) has contributed to the bill as well, insisting on “no dictatorial powers for Paulson without court review. Anything Paulson or anyone else does can be reviewed by judges during or after the fact.”
The most objectionable addition to Paulson and Bush is simultaneously the one most popular with the general public: limits on executive compensation. For obvious reasons, no one (outside of Wall Street circles) wants to see “emergency” tax appropriations going to pay for executives’ golden parachutes.
As Paul Krugman neatly summed it up, “Treasury should now be required to explain why this isn’t a much, much better way to do this rescue.”
Economic and Political Fallout
While the alternatives being proposed have much in common in terms of greater openness, accountability, and fairness, another common thread most of them share is that they are unfortunately not significantly less expensive. An expenditure of this magnitude can only be financed by a huge increase in the federal debt, even if some of it is recouped later. But there’s hardly a guarantee of that rosy outcome, considering some of the possible economic side-effects. Things could, indeed, get worse.
After all, much corporate and federal debt today is financed by foreign nations, who watch the U.S. economy closely and participate in it out of self-interest, not charity. As financial analyst Rolfe Winkler points out in the Baltimore Sun, the only option may be to monetize the debt (as the Fed has already been doing quietly, sub rosa, for years, as demonstrated by the ongoing fall of the dollar on currency markets):
“If the U.S. financial system relies on government funding to borrow, what will happen if the federal government’s creditors take a walk? Consider Argentina, which in 2002 devalued its currency to pay off a crushing debt burden. Foreign capital fled the country, the banking system collapsed, inflation hit 80 percent and unemployment reached 25 percent as the economy sank into a depression.
“Under no scenario can Uncle Sam raise the trillions it needs to meet all these obligations. No tax rate is high enough, no discretionary spending cuts draconian enough. And there is no creditor of last resort for the U.S. Treasury.”
Even more bleak is the long-term assessment from Paul Craig Roberts, former Assistant Treasury Secretary in the Reagan administration:
“The open question is: what do these new liabilities do to the Treasury’s own credit standing? …
“The current financial problems have pushed into the background the larger problems of the US budget and trade deficits. Goods and services for American markets that US corporations outsource offshore return as imports, which widen the US trade deficit. Moving production offshore reduces US GDP and employment and increases foreign GDP and employment. …
“Therefore, how is the trade deficit to be closed? One way is through the dollar’s loss in exchange value, which would reduce American consumers’ real incomes and leave them too poor to purchase the offshored goods and services. …
“A country that had intelligent leaders would recognize its dire straits, stop its gratuitous wars, and slash its massive military budget, which exceeds that of the rest of the world combined. But a country whose foreign policy goal is world hegemony will continue on the path to destruction until the rest of the world ceases to finance its existence.
“Most Americans, including the presidential candidates and the media, are unaware that the US government today, now at this minute, is unable to finance its day-to-day operations and must rely on foreigners to purchase its bonds. The government pays the interest to foreigners by selling more bonds, and when the bonds come due, the government redeems the bonds by selling new bonds. The day the foreigners do not buy is the day the American people and their government are brought to reality.”
For that matter, even in the short term, mortgage-backed securities are not the only risky paper cluttering up corporate America’s balance sheets. There are similarly vast amounts of securitized auto loans, credit-card debt, and other forms of borrowing that are liable to see higher default rates as prices rise and employment slips, and many investors fear that they may be the next domino to fall. But don’t worry:
“…over the weekend when most people were snoozing, the Treasury dramatically expanded its bailout plan to include buying student loans, car loans, credit card debt and any other “troubled” assets held by banks.
“The changes, which were included in draft language that also opened the bailout program to foreign banks with extensive loan operations in the United States, potentially added tens of billions of dollars to the cost of the program.”
While this might actually be considered a forward-looking move for a change, it certainly does nothing to instill confidence that Paulson is being straight with the public about the scope of either the problem or his “solution.”
Meanwhile, speculation is all over the map as to the political costs and benefits of a bailout. Digby fears that the GOP might move en bloc to vote against the plan as a way to distance themselves from the administration before the election—although that seems unlikely, given how indebted the party is to Wall Street… not to mention the Democratic leadership’s ability to preempt such a strategy, since they need not even bring a bill to the floor unless bipartisan support is guaranteed. David Brooks, with a certain touchingly naive faith in the power elite, imagines that “a new center and a new establishment is emerging,” in which “the country… will turn to the safe heads from the investment banks. … We’re entering an era of the educated establishment, in which government acts to create a stable — and often oligarchic — framework for capitalist endeavor.” He seems to neglect that the “time-tested advisers” he hails are the same ones who let this situation fester into a crisis in the first place.
There do at least seem to be two related and painfully clear forms of hypocrisy on display here—this much was evident when I first heard of the plan, even before studying the details, and remains even more obvious now—and neither of them reflects at all well on the Republican establishment that’s been running the country for most of the last 30 years.
One: The doctrine that the market not only can but must take care of itself, that government is inherently less efficient—practically an article of faith in some quarters since the Reagan years—has been tossed out the window, for a level of federal involvement that makes the New Deal pale in comparison. Suddenly government isn’t the problem, it is the (only available) solution.
Two: The reason conservatives’ principled opposition to government “interference” in the market has disappeared is that their own ox is being gored. Consider, for instance, how much more stable the economy might be today if only a fraction of the cost of this bailout had been devoted to national single-payer health care a few years back. American industry would be more competitive; public health would be improved and its costs reduced; citizens would enjoy both greater personal well-being and greater job mobility. But no! That would be socialism, and you can’t have socialism if it only benefits, well, everybody. …On the other hand, when major Wall Street corporations have their necks on the line? Well, then, socialism for the capitalists is just fine. It’s a glaring double standard.
This kind of hypocrisy was always there under the surface, as Kevin Phillips has written about, but now it’s out in the open. The damning phrase “privatize the benefits, socialize the risks” has been heard quite a bit in the last few days, and with absolute accuracy.
The whole crisis, from causes to response, exemplifies textbook right-wing behavior. The conservative movement ideologue wastes no thought on advance planning, makes no attempt to level the playing field, gives no heed to nuances like “externalities” or “moral hazard” or “unforeseen consequences.” He just forges ahead with a short-term, look-out-for-number-one approach—until he finds his back against the wall, his ideology undermined by its own logical consequences. Then he turns to “solving” the “emergency,” with top priority placed on covering his own ass. Extra credit if he can externalize the costs of the “solution,” too, forcing the victims to bear the brunt of the burden.
Progressive commentators are celebrating this as a learning moment. Jared Bernstein crows,
“You hear that implosion reverberating through financial markets? It’s the sound of decades of conservative ideology collapsing.
“…progressives have a rare opportunity to change the economic debate in this country by injecting some glaringly obvious truths into the fray, such as:
–Deregulated markets cannot police themselves; they tend toward speculation, vastly underpriced risk, and deeply damaging bubbles;
–An economy that generates growth while leaving most families behind is a broken economy;
–We can neither achieve broad prosperity nor compete globally without robust growth in key sectors which we have ignored or underfunded, including manufacturing, green production, and cradle-to-retirement public education; crafting evermore clever financial instruments will not pave the way to dependable, broadly shared growth;
–No private sector firm should be too big to fail; any firm of that magnitude must be nationalized;
–Capital markets are dysfunctional; borrowing and lending standards are ignored; lax capital requirements lead to constant over-leveraging; shadow accounts thwart transparency;
–We apparently can quickly find (or borrow) the money to do the stuff the authorities deem necessary, be it war or bailout; thus, we can also find the money we need for investment in people, from health care to education to infrastructure, etc.
–Supply-side, trickle-down economics does not work; it exacerbates already excessive levels of market-driven inequalities and defunds government, which leads to:
–Clearly, we need government to be amply funded; as is the case today, we will always turn to federal government to meet the toughest challenges, and if the money isn’t there, we’ll borrow from the future. This means taxes cannot only be lowered; they must sometimes be raised.”
Arianna Huffington writes that:
“In the course of selling us on buying, the market-worshippers shredded the modern social contract, the hard-fought consensus that had emerged since the New Deal, which ordered our political priorities, and expressed both our communal concern for the most vulnerable members of society and our disapproval of huge inequalities. We were now supposed to believe that all could be left up to the soulless, self-correcting calculus of supply and demand. Government involvement was an anachronism, regulatory oversight an impediment.
“The last few weeks have demolished that notion. In the battle over the proper role of government, the forces of the Right, the high priests of the church of the Free Market — including Bush, Paulson, and the Masters of Wall Street — have suffered a monumental defeat.”
Douglas Rushkoff opines:
“The problem for us is that if the Fed doesn’t bail out banks and insurance companies, we all lose our money. But if they do bail out the banks and insurance companies, we all have to pay for it. If the Fed runs out of money to do this, they have to print more money. So the money they insure our bank accounts with ends up worth very little. …
“All this means is that you can’t count on capitalism anymore. Your wealth is not how many paper assets you have. It’s not even how much land you have (or think you have). It’s what you can do. It’s your value to other people.
“The real economy need not suffer in the downfall of the speculative economy. If anything, the real economy has been repressed by the speculative economy. …
“The opportunity here, while the big boys are down, is to rebuild the genuine, local commercial infrastructure. To make shoes, clothes, food, education, healthcare and everything else we can in a bottom-up fashion. While speculators enjoy the economy of scale, we inhabit an ecology scaled to the human being that was lost in the corporatist equation.”
“…rest assured: the ideology will come roaring back when the bailouts are done. The massive debts the public is accumulating to bail out the speculators will then become part of a global budget crisis that will be the rationalization for deep cuts to social programs, and for a renewed push to privatize what is left of the public sector. We will also be told that our hopes for a green future are, sadly, too costly.”
…but even she quickly acknowledges the counterpoint:
“What we don’t know is how the public will respond. … This spectacle necessarily raises the question: if the state can intervene to save corporations that took reckless risks in the housing markets, why can’t it intervene to prevent millions of Americans from imminent foreclosure? By the same token, if $85bn can be made instantly available to buy the insurance giant AIG, why is single-payer health care — which would protect Americans from the predatory practices of health-care insurance companies — seemingly such an unattainable dream? And if ever more corporations need taxpayer funds to stay afloat, why can’t taxpayers make demands in return — like caps on executive pay, and a guarantee against more job losses?
“Now that it’s clear that governments can indeed act in times of crises, it will become much harder for them to plead powerlessness in the future.”
For the moment, at least, the public seems to be responding well. As of September 22, “a new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll suggests that by a 2-to-1 margin, Americans blame Republicans over Democrats for the financial crisis that has swept across the country the past few weeks.” Eighty-eight percent are either concerned or scared about the financial crisis. Obama has increased his margin over McCain, and picked up majority support among both men and senior citizens. The short-term political tea leaves are favorable.
The opportunity for a longer-term political phase shift is unquestionably there. The downside — as raised by both Roberts and Klein above — is the question of how exactly we are to take advantage of it, with a mushrooming federal debt on our hands just to keep things marginally stable. Many of the best programs proposed by an Obama administration might seem fiscally risky in an age of forced austerity.
Still, it was always clear that the next president’s main job would be to staunch the bleeding caused by the many open wounds the Bush years have inflicted on us; to (pardon the mixed metaphor) stop digging the hole deeper and start climbing out. That task has just grown harder, but it is a difference of degree, not of kind. It will take a serious long-term vision to overcome the short-term hardships, no question… but this crisis may just facilitate the shift in public sentiment necessary to support such a vision, rather than merely a return to the discredited “business as usual.”
(Whew! Writing an information-heavy, link filled pair of posts like this is genuinely exhausting. I don’t know how Glenn Greenwald does it on a regular basis. Then again, he does get paid for it.)Tags: bailout, economy, financial crisis, Paulson