As economists puzzle over the proposed details of what may be the biggest financial bailout in American history, the initial skepticism that greeted its unveiling has only deepened.
Some are horrified at the prospect of putting $700 billion in public money on the line. Others are outraged that Wall Street, home of the eight-figure salary, may get rescued from the consequences of its real estate bender, even as working families give up their houses to foreclosure.
Most economists accept that the nation’s financial crisis — the worst since the Great Depression — has reached such perilous proportions that an expensive intervention is required. But considerable disagreement centers on how to go about it. The Treasury’s proposal for a bailout, now being negotiated with Congress, is being challenged as fundamentally deficient.
“At first it was, ‘thank goodness the cavalry is coming,’ but what exactly is the cavalry going to do?” asked Douglas W. Elmendorf, a former Treasury and Federal Reserve Board economist, and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “What I worry about is that the Treasury has acted very quickly, without having the time to solicit enough opinions.”
The common denominator to many reactions is a visceral discomfort with giving Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr. — himself a product of Wall Street — carte blanche to relieve major financial institutions of bad loans choking their balance sheets, all on the taxpayer’s bill.
There are substantive reasons for this discomfort, not least concerns that Mr. Paulson will pay too much, thus subsidizing giant financial institutions. Many economists argue that taxpayers ought to get more than avoidance of the apocalypse for their dollars: they ought to get an ownership stake in the companies on the receiving end.
But an underlying source of doubt about the bailout stems from who is asking for it. The rescue is being sold as a must-have emergency measure by an administration with a controversial record when it comes to asking Congress for special authority in time of duress.
“This administration is asking for a $700 billion blank check to be put in the hands of Henry Paulson, a guy who totally missed this, and has been wrong about almost everything,” said Dean Baker, co-director of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. “It’s almost amazing they can do this with a straight face. There is clearly skepticism and anger at the idea that we’d give this money to these guys, no questions asked.”
Mr. Paulson has argued that the powers he seeks are necessary to chase away the wolf howling at the door: a potentially swift shredding of the American financial system. That would be catastrophic for everyone, he argues, not only banks, but also ordinary Americans who depend on their finances to buy homes and cars, and to pay for college.
Some are suspicious of Mr. Paulson’s characterizations, finding in his warnings and demands for extraordinary powers a parallel with the way the Bush administration gained authority for the war in Iraq. Then, the White House suggested that mushroom clouds could accompany Congress’s failure to act. This time, it is financial Armageddon supposedly on the doorstep.
“This is scare tactics to try to do something that’s in the private but not the public interest,” said Allan Meltzer, a former economic adviser to President Reagan, and an expert on monetary policy at the Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business. “It’s terrible.”
In part, Mr. Paulson’s credibility has been dented by his pronouncements in previous weeks that the crisis was already contained. Some suggest this was a well-intentioned effort to stem panic. But the aftermath complicates his quest for the bailout.
“If you view your public statements as an instrument of policy, people don’t believe you anymore,” said Vincent R. Reinhart, a former Federal Reserve economist and now a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
The biggest point of contention is over whether and how taxpayers would benefit if the bailout succeeded in righting the financial system, sending banking stocks upward.
In Mr. Paulson’s plan, the Treasury would have the right to buy as much as $700 billion worth of troubled investments, with the taxpayer recouping the proceeds when those investments were sold over coming years. But many economists — Mr. Elmendorf among them — argue that taxpayers should get more out of the deal, securing stock in the banks that make use of the bailout. The government could then sell off that stock at a profit when conditions improve. A similar approach was used successfully in Sweden in the early 1990s when its financial system melted down.
* By PETER S. GOODMAN (NYT; September 23, 2008)