Truthout, March 30, 2009
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The new consensus among the experts who missed the housing bubble (EMHB) is that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s plan to subsidize the purchase of junk mortgages and their derivatives will help alleviate the stress on the banking system. That’s good news.
These geniuses have devised a plan that for $1 trillion (approximately equal to 300 million kid-years of SCHIP, the State Child Health Insurance Program) can alleviate the stress on the banking system. Note that no one claims that $1 trillion spent on the Geithner plan will actually clean up the banking system – that would be asking too much. The EHMB only assure us that this $1 trillion (more than enough to have energy-conserving retrofits for every building in the country) will make things better. Isn’t that enough?
Oh, by the way, some people will get very rich off the Geithner plan. Some hedge and equity fund managers could make hundreds of millions or even billions off the Geithner plan. And, under current law, they will pay a lower tax rate on this money than a schoolteacher or firefighter. Are you sold yet?
One other outcome of the Geithner plan is that the folks who bankrupted their banks and wrecked the economy will be able to continue to earn multi-million dollar salaries. Of course this is necessary, because who else has the skills to run these banks, other than the people who drove them into bankruptcy?
For some reason, every plan the EHMB have developed so far involves using taxpayer dollars to subsidize the bankrupt banks and keep them breathing a little bit longer, while offering opportunities for other Wall Street actors to get hugely wealthy. Some people say that the EMHB keep coming up with plans that enrich the Wall Street crew because they are so closely tied to the Wall Street financial interests.
It is of course possible that the EMHB are too closely tied to the financial industry, but it’s also possible that they just lack the creativity and imagination to think of a plan that doesn’t enrich the Wall Street crew. After all, these people lacked the ability to see an $8 trillion housing bubble, the largest financial bubble in the history of the world. So, let’s see if we can help them out.
The core problem is that many of the largest banks are bankrupt. They are currently concealing this bankruptcy by listing assets on their books at prices that are far above their market value. In principle, they can do this for a long time, unless the government forces them to write-down the value of these assets. As long as the banks are bankrupt, they will not make new loans, limiting the ability of many businesses to get capital.
Instead of Geithner’s plan to allow banks to sell these assets at a subsidized price, we can go the other way. Geithner could have announced a plan to clean up the banks following a standard FDIC-type takeover.
This approach could harness the power of existing bond-holders to help the government clean up the banks quickly. Geithner could, for example, promise to honor the banks’ commitments to bondholders in full, if the banks recognized their losses immediately. Bondholders, however, would be offered a lower payback rate for each month that the banks waited.
So, if a bank waited one month, the bondholders would only get a guarantee for 90 percent of the value of their assets. If the bank waited two months, the payback would fall to 85 percent and so on. (Note the issue here is bank bonds that the government has no legal or moral obligation to pay off. The government will of course pay off the banks’ FDIC insured deposits.)
Under this kind of a plan, bondholders would place enormous pressure on the banks to recognize their losses. Bank executives that refused to own up to the bank’s bad assets might even face personal liability. In other words, executives who lie about their bank’s assets might not just lose the bonuses that came out of TARP money, they also might lose the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars they “earned” during the housing bubble.
If President Obama’s advisers, all of whom are leading members of the EMHB camp, had more imagination, they might have devised a plan like this for dealing with the banking crisis. Instead, they came up with a plan that will enrich Wall Street and further punish Main Street.
Congress can try to bring enough pressure to make President Obama reverse course. At the very least, Congress should insist that when this plan fails, Secretary Geithner and others involved in drafting the plan are sent packing. We cannot continue to have a system that always ignores the mistakes by those on top and only holds those at the bottom accountable. The EMHB already wrecked the economy once, how many more times will they get the opportunity?
Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy. He also has a blog on the American Prospect, "Beat the Press," where he discusses the media's coverage of economic issues.