The Bailout Round II: Adult Version?

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Dean Baker
TPMCafé (Talking Points Memo), September 29, 2008

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In spite of its best efforts, the Bush administration failed to push through a $700 billion give away to Wall Street. President Bush conjured up scary images of the Great Depression on national television. He even partially backed away from his initial demand for a complete blank check for Henry Paulson. But the public refused to send their tax dollars to Wall Street banks run by incompetent bankers, and they insisted that their representatives in Congress listen to their wishes.

While the editorialists are busy denouncing members of Congress for surrendering to the vulgar masses, it's a good time to quickly check the score card. The United States is in a recession and facing the worst financial crisis in almost 80 years because the folks currently in charge were out to lunch.

They allowed an $8 trillion housing bubble ($110,000 for every homeowner) to grow unchecked. People like Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke, and Alan Greenspan repeatedly insisted that there was no housing bubble as house prices got ever further out of line with fundamentals. President Bush regularly boasted about record rates of homeownership as the sleazes at outfits like Countrywide, IndyMac, and New Century pushed predatory mortgages on moderate income families, many of whom were black or Hispanic.

It just took a little common sense to see that a disaster was imminent, even if the exact timing and course could not be predicted. But, our elites lacked commonsense, and that is why we now face such a dire economic situation.

The main cause of the economy's weakness is not insolvent banks and lack of credit; it's the loss of $4 trillion to $5 trillion in housing equity as a result of the bubble's partial deflation. Families used their equity to support their consumption in the years from 2002 to 2007, as the savings rate fell to almost zero.

With much of this equity now eliminated by the collapse of the bubble, many families can no longer sustain their levels of consumption. The main reason that banks won't lend to these families is that they no longer have home equity to serve as collateral. It wouldn't matter how much money the banks had, they are not going to make mortgage loans to people who have no equity.

And house prices are not going to come back. This is like Pets.com. We are not going to get the price of $200,000 homes in central California back up to $500,000.

The main problem in recovering from the recession will be finding ways to boost demand other than household consumption. In the longer run, this will mean reducing imports and increasing exports. In the short-run, we will have to rely on government stimulus to help spur growth and reduce unemployment. The Democratic demands for stimulus were not extraneous to the legitimate goal of a bank bailout bill. Fiscal stimulus must be central to any serious effort to boost the economy.

The weakness of the banks contributes to the downturn, but they are not the core of the problem. We would still be facing a recession even if all our banks were flush with cash. Hence the hype about the urgency of the bailout was an invention. It would be good to get our banks in order, but it also would be good to send $100 billion to state and local governments to support infrastructure projects and other spending.

How do we go about getting the banks in order? Almost every economist I know rejects the Paulson approach and argues instead for directly injecting capital into the banks. The taxpayers give them the money and then we own some, or all, of the bank. (That's what Warren Buffet did with Goldman Sachs.)

This isn't about begging for a sliver of equity as a concession for a $700 billion bailout, this is about constructing a bank rescue the way that business people would do it. We have an interest in a well-operating financial system. There is zero public interest in giving away taxpayer dollars to the Wall Street banks and their executives.

If Secretary Paulson constructed a package that was centered around buying direct equity stakes in the banks, he could quickly garner large majority support in both houses. Better yet, Congress could just construct its own package centered on buying equity stakes and send it to President Bush. If he balks, we can just threaten him with stories about the Great Depression.


Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer. He also has a blog on the American Prospect, "Beat the Press," where he discusses the media's coverage of economic issues.