Gut Check

Protesters march past the New York Stock Exchange during a rally yesterday against the Wall Street bailout.
Protesters march past the New York Stock Exchange during a rally yesterday against the Wall Street bailout. (By Mary Altaffer -- Associated Press)
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By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, September 26, 2008

You're angry. I'm angry. House Republicans are angry. We're all angry at having to put up huge amounts of cash to rescue a financial system because a lot of very rich people rolled the dice with other people's money and lost.

Now let me tell you something very simple and very important: You can try to prevent a financial meltdown or you can teach Wall Street a lesson, but you can't do both at the same time.

So which will it be?

You say you want straight talk -- no spin, no bull, no sugar-coating. Okay, here goes.

First, stop fixating on Wall Street executives -- there will be time to deal with them later. Even if you clawed back every dime they made over the past decade, it would come to several billions of dollars. That's a rounding error compared with the size of the financial problem we're facing here.

Second, we need to act quickly. The financial situation is now downright scary. Don't look at the stock market -- that's not where the problem is. The problem is in the credit markets, which are quickly freezing. I won't bore you with technical indicators like Libor and Treasury swap spreads, but if you talk to people who work these markets every day, as I have, they report that the money markets are in worse shape than they were last August, or even during the currency crises of 1998.

Banks and big corporations and even money-market funds are hoarding cash, refusing to lend it out for a day or a week or a month. Even the best companies are having trouble floating bonds at reasonable rates. And the shadow banking system -- the market in asset-backed securities that ultimately supplies the capital for most home loans, car loans, college loans -- is almost completely shut down.

People are so nervous, and there is so much distrust, that all it would take is one more hit to trigger the modern-day equivalent of a nationwide bank run. Financial institutions would fail, part of your savings would be wiped out, jobs would be lost and a lot of economic activity would grind to a halt. Such a debacle would cost us a lot more than $700 billion.

Third, the latest proposal hammered out between the Treasury and Democratic leaders won't cost anywhere near $700 billion unless we get a 1930s-like Depression, in which case we'll have much bigger problems to worry about. Depending on how the program is managed, and how things turn out with the economy and the housing market, the best guess is that the government could wind up either losing or making a couple of hundred billion dollars. The final tab is simply unknowable -- it depends on how much the government winds up paying for the securities it buys from banks and other financial institutions, and what price it resells them at after the market and the economy recover.

Fourth, this isn't primarily a bailout for Wall Street -- it's an attempt to jump-start certain credit markets that have broken to the point that nobody is buying, driving down prices to the point where they are well below any reasonable estimate of their long-term economic value.

The basic idea is to use special auctions to recreate a market for these securities with many competing sellers and one buyer (the Treasury), so that a credible "market" price can be established. If that price turns out to be below what those securities are now valued at on the banks' balance sheets, then banks will have to take the loss. If the price turns out to be higher, then banks may be able to record gains. The point isn't to bail out institutions that have made bad bets and suffered credit losses, but to provide a buyer of last resort so the market can begin pricing again.

Are there other ways to structure this market rescue? Sure. You could try to deal with the underlying problem by taking additional measures to prevent foreclosures. Or you could create a mechanism for the government to invest fresh capital in troubled banks, in exchange for stock. In fact, both approaches are possible and envisioned under the administration proposal now under discussion. But neither, by itself, is likely to quickly restore confidence in the financial system and relieve the current crisis.

My own suggestion would be to structure the rescue around a new government-owned corporation that would be capitalized, initially, with $100 billion in taxpayer funds. The company would use auctions or other mechanisms to buy the troubled securities from banks and other regulated institutions, but instead of paying for them in cash, the government would swap them for an equal number of preferred shares in the new company. (Preferred shares are something of a cross between a bond and common stock.) Those preferred shares would pay a government-guaranteed dividend and could be redeemed by the government at any time. But they could also be used by banks to augment the capital they are required to maintain by regulators.

The beauty of this arrangement is that, rather than protecting taxpayers by having the government take an ownership stake in hundreds of privately owned banks, it would be the banks that would own a stake of the government's rescue vehicle. The government would suffer the first $100 billion in losses from buying and selling the asset-backed securities, but any further losses would be borne by the other shareholders. And should the rescue effort actually wind up making a profit, then the banks would share in that as well.

I mention this idea to make a final point -- namely that it is important to give the Treasury secretary and the people he hires a good deal of flexibility in designing and experimenting with the mechanics of this rescue. The reality is that these guys will be operating in uncharted territory, making things up as they go along. That means there are no assurances that any particular approach will work and no assurances that this will be the final solution. It also means that, just as we entrust generals to fight a war, we are going to have to trust the Treasury to find a way out of this crisis.

Steven Pearlstein can be reached

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