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The Banks Have Stolen Enough; It's Time to Take Them Over

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Dean Baker
TPMCafé (Talking Points Memo), January 24, 2009


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Hold onto your wallets. The bankers are coming back for more money. They burned through the $350 billion that we gave them in the first round of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and they are worried that even the second $350 billion will not be enough money to keep them solvent. The selective leaks from Treasury tell us that the banks will need far more money to cover their bad debts.

The latest story is that the banks want to sell us their bad assets at above market prices, which was the original plan that Treasury Secretary Paulson proposed, except the banks want to push off their junk on an even bigger scale. In one version, the government would set up a Resolution Trust-type corporation (RTC), like we did with the bankrupt Savings and Loans in the 80s, which would hold all the garbage and then gradually resell it to the private sector to recover a portion of what the government paid.

This is a reasonable course, except there is one big difference between what we did with the S&Ls in the 80s and the leaked plan being floated. The S&Ls were taken over by the government and then resold to the private sector. These were bankrupt institutions that were put out of business. The stockholders were wiped out, which is what is supposed to happen to stock holders when their company goes bankrupt.

But this is not what happens in the plan being discussed. In this plan, the taxpayers just do the banks the great favor of paying above market prices for their junk so that we can relieve them of the burden of their past mistakes. The taxpayers get to eat the losses and the bank executives and their shareholders go on their merry way.

These folks are not market fundamentalist types. The Wall Street view of the world, and apparently the view of at least some people in the Obama administration, is that the government always is there to help a bank or banker in need.

The idea that we would give one more penny to this crew that has wrecked the economy should make taxpayers furious. There is a legitimate public interest in keeping the banks operating; a modern economy needs a well-operating financial system. But, there is zero public interest in rewarding shareholders and overpaid banks executives.

These executives bankrupted their banks and brought the economy down with them. They belong in an unemployment line, not collecting multi-million dollar paychecks in their designer office suites.

The obvious answer is to take over the insolvent banks, just as we did with the insolvent S&Ls. The government should form an RTC as we did in the 80s, which would dispose of the assets over time, collecting as much money as possible for the government. The bankrupt banks would be restructured and sold back to the private sector as soon as their books were straightened out. The point of the exercise is not have the government run the banks, the point is to keep the financial system running without giving even more money to the richest people in the country.

This is the only reasonable solution to the mess that the bankers have created. The other solutions are simply efforts to transfer dollars from hardworking taxpayers to overpaid and incompetent bank executives. It is hard to believe that anyone would take it seriously, if not for the enormous political power of the Wall Street gang.

It's too bad that the Republicans' anger over giving tax breaks to workers who did not pay income taxes does not extend to giving tax dollars to Wall Street banks who have wrecked our economy. Where are the anti-government conservatives when we need them?


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.