Pearlstein: Stimulus Package

Steven Pearlstein
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, January 14, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein was online Wednesday, Jan. 14 at 11:00 a.m. ET to discuss Obama's stimulus plan.

Read today's column: Unfairly Rewarding Greedy Bankers, and Why It Works.

A transcript follows.

About Pearlstein: Steven Pearlstein writes about business and the economy for The Washington Post. His journalism career includes editing roles at The Post and Inc. magazine. He was founding publisher and editor of The Boston Observer, a monthly journal of liberal opinion. He got his start in journalism reporting for two New Hampshire newspapers -- the Concord Monitor and the Foster's Daily Democrat. Pearlstein has also worked as a television news reporter and a congressional staffer.

Pearlstein was honored with the Pulitzer Prize for commentary for his columns about mounting problems in the financial markets. His award was one of six Pulitzer Prizes won by The Washington Post this year.

Read Pearlstein's latest columns.


Burke, Va.: I'm having trouble understanding the plan. We are in a big economic mess because people:

1) spent a lot of money they didn't have,

2) borrowed more than they could possibly repay, and

3) thought that somehow in the future, the debt would be miraculously covered.

So now, we propose to fix the situation by:

1) spending money we don't have,

2) borrowing an incomprehensibly large amount of money, and

3) thinking that in the future, the debt will somehow be miraculously covered.

Please explain why this is a good idea.

Steven Pearlstein: Great questions. And it is seemingly contradictory: spending your way out of a problem caused by excessive spending. But that's just the reality of it, as absurd as it sounds. The trick is to parse it correctly. The country as a whole got into too much debt, particularly the private sector, so now we need to get that put back right. And in order to do that, the collective (i.e. the government) which can still borrow money needs to provide the money necessary to keep the machine going as major adjustments are made, so the whole thing doesn't come to a complete halt. Once those adjustments are made, the losses written off, the industries right-sized and restructured, the mortgages renegotiated, etc, etc., then the government can step back, stop spending and get its own house in order, which will be Big Task No. 2. So its one thing at a time because if you try to do them both at the same time, we'll have the Great Depression and create a vicious downward cycle that will have a strong momentum of its own and we won't be able to pull out of it very easily.

So its not as crazy as you think. Sometimes you have to fight wars to make peace.


Seaford, Del.: Chase has just announced that they are closing the wholesale lending division. The account executive provided that info.

What good is the stimulus money, of the lenders do not make it available to brokers?

Steven Pearlstein: The stimulus money is something else. I think you are talking about the bailout money, the $700 billion, which is supposed to be used to keep the financial system from freezing up. And that means making sure banks are well capitalized so they can operate pretty much as normal. That's the assumption behind the program: keep the banks healthy and they'll do what banks do, which is make loans. I don't think we want to get into a situation where regulators are telling banks how much money to put out every day or every week, irrespective of the quality of the loans being requested, or telling them what kinds of loans to make and what not. So I think people may be confusing what this is all about. It is about fixing the institutions, not making them pawns of the government.


Kansas City, Mo.: Steven: What is your view on this debate between liberals and conservatives about FDR's actions during the Depression? I believe the Right essentially says all his spending made things worse, and the Left says the one brief period where he listened to conservatives and reined in spending is when things didn't go well.


Steven Pearlstein: If the government spends $40,000 to employ somebody, then somebody is employed. It's ridiculous to say that didn't work. Did it have the kind of follow on effect with a big multiplier that brought the economy from 25 percent unemployment to 6 percent? No it didn't, because so much else was broken the economy. But to say direct spending doesn't work is sort of absurd.

This brings up what is essentially the key issue, here, which is what is the standard of success. Success in the minds of too many people is putting things back the way they were before the troubles. And that is an impossible and misguided standard, because what came before the troubles was a mirage. It was a bubble economy, based on a bunch of asset and credit bubbles, and it was thoroughly unsustainable. So we can't go back there. We need to go through a painful adjustment process so that we have an economy that roughly consumes what it produces (in an economic sense) and invests what it saves, and that is going to take lots of deleveraging and price changes and redeployment of people and restructuring of industries, and its not going to be fun and not going to be pretty. The government's role is to protect people from the worst impacts of that and help grease the gears a bit so it can happen quickly and orderly. That's what "fixing" the problem involves, but it won't feel good, and people have to begin to understand that. "Fixing" it by putting things back as they were is not an option because what that would boil down to is reflating the bubble.


Fort Worth, Texas: Stephen, why all the recent panic from others about deflation? Last year the government's cost of living increase was at 5.8 percent, so one would think that a little deflation would be good for consumers who need to stretch that dollar. Also, all last year it seemed like we were only talking about "core" inflation, which was lower, but now gas and food get included so that deflation seems to be a bigger threat than it is. What gives?

Steven Pearlstein: The price of assets are deflating, and we know from Japan and the Great Depression is that if that triggers a deep recession, you can actually get living price deflation, which is a very difficult dynamic to stop -- more difficult, in fact, than inflation. It is not a fanciful worry, and if you wait a few months for the change in energy prices to work through the system and the data, I think you'll find that consumer prices will look pretty tame and maybe even heading in the deflationary direction.


Ashland, Mo.: Allegedly part of the stimulus package will be to freeze the estate tax provisions at this year's level. My perhaps faulty memory is that the full repeal was to be paid for by eliminating the stepped up basis for assets that were inherited. If that is correct, would more taxpayers benefit from the stepped up basis rather than elimination of the estate tax? How does one determine whether this is an overall tax cut or increase?

Steven Pearlstein: This is a good, if somewhat technical question. I don't believe the Bushiest wanted to "pay" for inheritance tax repeal by eliminating the stepped up basis -- that is, by requiring those who inherit stocks and bonds to pay the capital gains tax based on the original price of those assets, not on the basis of what they were worth at the time of inheritance. But that is certainly one alternative to the inheritance or estate tax, since it would raise roughly as much money. Obviously the timing would be different, and without the $5 million exemption, it would hit harder at genuinely small business owners who would otherwise be exempt. But many tax reformers prefer that route because it is fairer and more neutral. I'm actually one of those people, although I think the capital gains tax should be paid upon inheritance by the beneficiaries of the estate, in lieu of an inheritance tax, with extended periods allowed to pay those taxes in the case of inheritance of operating businesses or farms.


Hebron, Ind.: With the economy like it is, and it's bad, what will happen to people's social security and Medicare?

Steven Pearlstein: They will get them. That's why they are called a safety net.


Alexandria, Va.: Stimulus - if the banks, etc. aren't using the stimulus package in the way that Congress intended and in the way that the banks intimated they would use it - can Congress just call in the loans? Breech of contract and all that.

Steven Pearlstein: First, we need to be clear that this is the bailout money, not the stimulus money, which is something that is still to be voted on by Congress and isn't going to banks.

The bailout money IS being used as intended -- critics are simply wrong about that. Nobody ever promised that if banks were recapitalized, they would immediately go out and loan that money to consumers and small businesses. Anyone who understand the first thing about banking understood that the capital injections were meant to replenish capital at banks that had been lost as a result of bad loans, so that banks would not have to REDUCE their loan portfolios, or reduce them as much.

Now it is true that some of the money went to banks that really were sufficiently capitalized -- that, in effect, didn't really need it. That was a bad idea, based on the theory that you didn't want to stigmatize the weak banks so Treasury was better off giving it to all the big banks. Bad idea. But as it happens, in the next quarter or two, those banks that didn't need it WILL need it as their losses from consumer and commercial real estate loans start to kick in.

Look, I don't particularly like bankers, and in particular I hate the way they act like a herd, lending to anyone one day and nobody the next, because they have lost the ability to discern good risks from bad risks. But at the end of the day, banks are in the business of making loans and if they have funds to lend after putting aside sufficient capital, they will lend it. They may not lend it to local small businesses, but instead buy corporate bonds, but that is lending, nonetheless. It increases the supply of capital, and to some extent, capital is fungible and if the system is working, capital will go to where it offers the highest and best return. The system isn't perfect -- boy, do we know that. But its not so completely broken that its worth getting into government-directed lending. So we need to chill out a bit here and have some faith in institutions and people and markets, particularly now that lots of people have learned important lessons about what not to do.


Pau, France:

Mr. Pearlstein,

Could you prognosticate on the stock market and if you are still advocating staying out of the market. It seems to me we are testing the bottom, but I trust your opinion much more than my own.

Thanks for the insight.

Steven Pearlstein: If you are an ordinary investor, you should not be jumping back into the market. The bottoms have not been fully tested. The economy is not going to turn up in a couple of months. The financial crisis has not passed.

I've said to people that its perfectly okay to continue buying a bit of stock every month as part of a 401k plan, because although you may not be buying at the bottom, it is surely not buying at the top. But if you have money on the sideline, and you aren't really a professional trader, this is not a market for you. Sit it out, preserve your principle, draw a bit of interest and wait until the storm has passed.


Martinsburg, W. Va.: Thank you for all of your great columns. I keep reading that the banks need more bail out money and consumers need to spend to help revive the economy. One problem that I see is that the average American has too much debt. Those Americans that still have employment are starting to pay off their debt instead of spending. Why not have a bailout program that gives $4000 to each taxpayer with the stipulation that the money has to be used to pay off the person's credit cards or pay down their mortgage. If the person does not have any debt then he or she must go out and buy some big ticket items with the money to help stimulate the economy. This way, the banks would get a large infusion of cash and the consumer would start to get out from a possible mountain of debt freeing them to spend more in the near future with their debt load reduced or eliminated. Why should the banks be saved with taxpayer money with the taxpayer left in hock to the same banks at abusive high interest rates.

Steven Pearlstein: It's a good question, but I suspect that's not a good idea, sending checks to everyone to pay off their debts. And in fact it is more of a bailout of the banks than the way we are doing it, which is investing in banks in a way that doesn't so much benefit the current owners and managers. Its complicated, I know, but the thing you are forgetting is that the taxpayer, in the end, is probably going to make a profit on this. If you just send $4,000 checks, it is money that will be never recovered.


Bradenton, Fla.: Instead of a tax cut through a payroll tax holiday which would further weaken Social Security, why not increase the standard deduction to match the yearly income for minimum wage? This increase of about $7500 would be a $750 tax cut for all working Americans for those who don't itemize. It could also be made retroactive to 2008 so it would also provide a tax refund stimulus.

Steven Pearlstein: We already have a very high standard deduction that comes pretty close to what you suggest, I believe. And in the case of giving a SS tax holiday, the idea was always to have the Treasury send an IOU to the SS Trust Fund so that the program would not suffer. It was merely a convenient way to get cash in the hands of workers at the lower end of the income scale.

By the way, I don't think any individual tax cuts are a good idea at this point. Two reasons. First, it simply delays the day of reckoning when households will have to adjust their spending to match their incomes. And second, it is not as good a stimulus as having the government spend the money directly. The difference is that the government will use the money to demand goods and services from American companies, boosting employment and output, while individuals may well use the money to pay down debt (which is financially prudent but not simulative) or to buy things made abroad (which stimulates the Chinese economy more than ours).


New York, N.Y.: Steve, Your point is well-taken that a "bailout" was necessary to prevent a wholesale collapse of the financial system. My objection is that more meaningful oversight doesn't seem to have been put in place. For example, for many years investment banks paid approximately 50 percent of their revenues in compensation. No other industry even comes close. Why isn't a bailout condition that you can only pay 30 or 40 percent, perhaps leaving more money for shareholders? Why can't we demand management changes and limits on leverage, risk and employee perks? I know limitations can get out of hand, but if we don't have them, we'll be back in the same place or worse, sometime soon.

Steven Pearlstein: There is no evidence that significant amounts of this money are being used to lavish on executives and employees. Banks are hurting and, for the most part, they are paying big bonuses only to those traders and bankers who produce big profits in their particular areas. They do so not because they are nice guys but because if they don't, these top performers will go to the competition. That's just the reality of those labor markets. As for the top executives, they realize the scrutiny they are under and have pretty much reigned in their big bonuses. So in my opinion, this issue of the money being used by bankers to feather their own nest is really without much factual basis.

Should banks that receive investment from the government be allowed to continue paying dividends. Well, first off, now that the taxpayers are holding preferred shares, I damn well hope they continue paying those 5 percent dividends to the preferred shareholders. But to the larger question, if the banks make profits, then there is no reason they can't distribute those profits to shareholders in the form of dividends as long as they satisfied regulatory requirements in terms of reserves and capital. That's the way business and finance works -- you pay for capital. That's not some great treat from the taxpayers. It's what happens when you recapitalize a system and that system returns to a relatively normal operation, which I thought was the purpose of the program in the first place.


No more "jolts," please!: Here are two major reasons why I oppose the "stimulus" being imposed on us:

-After receiving hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded federal bailout money, the biggest U.S. banks say they can't track how that money is being spent.

-The mantra is that a "jolt" is needed to stimulate the economy to more than a trillion dollars, forget the deficit. But we've been "jolting" the economy for years now -- albeit only with a few hundred billion dollars in deficit. Look what mess that left us in. Why should this next "jolt" be different now? Just because bureaucrats make pinky promises and cross their hearts that they'll be accountable this time?

Steven Pearlstein: Well, you care confusing the stimulus and the bailout here. But let's deal with the first criticism, that we don't know where the money has gone. This is simply a LIE. We know exactly where the money has gone -- its gone to banks as new capital. Now if you want to know what the banks have done with it, well, its not like you can track each dollar bill. The capital goes into the big pot of money at each bank, and banks do lots of things with their money: they pay their employees, they operate their buildings, they lend money, they set aside some money as reserve capital, they pay interest on the money they buy on the wholesale market, they pay dividends, etc. etc. And they do this under the eyes of federal regulators. Now if you want to know how the loan book of the banks has changed, on a net basis, every quarter, you can look on the call reports that are available at the FDIC web site, or you can look at the quarterly reports of the publicly owned banks. Regulators can look even further at every loan that is made, as can the relevant congressional committees. So the idea that nobody has any idea how this money is being spent is simply nonsense.


Peasants with Pitchforks: Steven: Here are just some brief reasons that folks are steamed: - We are passing debt to our children and grandchildren.

- We still have no effective regulation or oversight. The original Treasury proposal was less than two pages, with no oversight or reporting to Congress.

- These banks continue spending on non-bank activities like sporting events (The Rose Bowl presented by Citi), and stadium naming rights ($400 million over 20 years for the new Mets baseball stadium).

Everyone else has to cut back, and make due with less.

We don't mind sharing the pain, but we do mind bearing the pain, especially when the same folks that got us into this mess are still at the helm.

Steven Pearlstein: Put away your pitchfork, please. The debt is unfortunate, but its less than the debt you'd pass on to your grandchildren than if the country fell into a depression. Trust me on that one. Second, just because Citi gets a bailout, why should they stop sponsoring sporting events. Do you think they sponsored sporting events or naming stadiums because it is a gift to the community? NO! They did it because it is marketing, and they have come to believe or know that investing a dollar in marketing yields them more than a dollar in payback in terms of increased revenue and increased profits. In other words, they do it because they are greedy. Now if you suddenly prevent them from spending any money on marketing after you have invested billions of shareholder dollars in these banks, how is that good for the new shareholders? Do you want to drive them out of business? Is that good for the economy? Is that good for the taxpayers? I don't' think so.

These are businesses! The idea is to keep them operating in ways that make them profitable and strong so they can get back on their feet and pay us back, and in the meantime continue to supply credit to the economy. We can't micromanage every expense from Washington! Let's stop this game, really. Its gotten quite silly.


Free Money: I know this is not a policy discussion, but I am concerned about the pork craze that the stimulus could become. Everyone it seems thinks they can get in on this, and get funding for their program/projects in it. Is there any chance that it will be earmark-free?

Steven Pearlstein: It will be earmark free. But at the end of the day, somebody has to chose which projects to fund and which not. And inevitably there will be some "politics" involved, in that public officials will have a say in those decision. It would be nice if we could get the angels in heaven to make those decisions, but I'm advised they have other things to do. So, alas, it will be left to public officials.


Alexandria, Va.: In the future, how can the Government prevent the banks from taking on excessive leverage?

Steven Pearlstein: Yes. Why don't you write to the comptroller of the currency and the chairman of the federal reserve and ask why they didn't do that. It would be a fine question. I'd love to hear their weasley answers. The right answer would be: We didn't do our jobs.


Fort Worth, Texas: Stephen, as always, thanks for the chats. Haven't the past eight years already been a massive stimulus package? The federal budget in that period grew by 50 percent from $2 to $3 trillion, and that money has come continuously year after year, not in one lump sum. If more government spending was the answer, haven't we seen its effects in the past eight years?

Steven Pearlstein: Again, the unfortunate thing is that we will have to temporarily take on even more debt before we can take on less. Sorry it is so inelegant an answer, so full of irony, but that's just the reality.


Chicago, Ill.: How much worse could it be? I'm having trouble refinancing my mortgage even though I have an 800+ credit score and zero other debt; somebody in my household is losing their job this year; my 401(k) and investment savings have lost more money than Bernie Madoff -- what could be worse? Why not inflict some pain on the Wall Street guys for once? Thanks.

Steven Pearlstein: Nobody is doing anything to "help" Wall Street. The government programs are designed to get the credit flowing thought he system again by making the financial intermediaries healthy again. It's not about helping them. It's about helping you. And while it isn't working perfectly yet, it is better than it might have been. I know that's a very unsatisfying answer. But that's the reality of it. Much of the stuff they have done is working and they will do more in an effort to finally get the credit flowing again. Have a bit of patience. Have a bit of trust. These are smart people working hard and trying to do the right thing. They are NOT -- let me repeat, NOT -- sending money to a bunch of greedy bankers on Wall Street so they can put it in their pocket and go home to their Park Avenue apartments. That's NOT what is going on here.


Laguna, Calif.: We hear how the liquidity from the stimulus program will be mopped up after the economy gets traction. Can you tell us how, specifically, they plan to mop up all these billions of dollars being pumped into the economy? Is there a plan for it or is it just a theory being worked on?

Steven Pearlstein: Your question supposes that there should be a plan. That's not exactly how it works. Its not like deploying tanks in a field. When the money is no longer needed, the loans can be reversed, the investments can be called in, the money supply can be reduced, interest rates can be raised, etc. etc. The Fed watches all this carefully and can begin to reverse things when the market starts to return to normal functioning. Is there a danger that mopping it up isn't as easy as putting it out, and that there is a risk of triggering inflation? You betcha. But it is a risk that is worth taking because it is less of a risk than letting the economy fall into depression.


Washington, DC: Too all those people who think the Executives should have been fired and investors should have been wiped out:

I get your anger, I am just as angry as you. The problem is, firing them isn't punishment! Most of these guys are millionaires so they could just move to a tropical island and retire, not much of a punishment. The real punishment is forcing them to stay in their jobs and fix the mess they made while shining a spot light on them to let the world know that they really aren't worth the mega bucks they are paid.

If you wipe out investors you really are only hurting 401ks and pension funds, which is the wealth of working class people who are already getting hammered. Doesn't make much sense either.

Steven Pearlstein: Thanks for that perspective. That's worth remembering.


Clinton, Conn.: With regard to the person and the $4000 to be used for debt reduction or spending: back up to before the bailout was passed. Instead of giving the money to the banks, wouldn't it have been better to give all homeowners $100-$200,000 to pay down/off their mortgages? If I had gotten money like that, I would have paid off my mortgage, the bank would be happy and now have money to lend. I now have an "extra" $1000 income per month to go out and spend, which would also help the economy. What wasn't something simple like this considered?

Steven Pearlstein: Because, as I said before, it's a bad idea that in fact bails out all the people who made bad judgment (you and your lender) and has zero chance of being repaid.


Where's the money?: It's something any bank would demand to know before handing out a loan: Where's the money going?

But after receiving billions in aid from U.S. taxpayers, the nation's largest banks say they can't track exactly how they're spending the money or they simply refuse to discuss it.

"We've lent some of it. We've not lent some of it. We've not given any accounting of, 'Here's how we're doing it,'" said Thomas Kelly, a spokesman for JPMorgan Chase, which received $25 billion in emergency bailout money. "We have not disclosed that to the public. We're declining to."

Steven Pearlstein: As I said, regulators can find out any day they want to how the money was used. And you can determine a lot yourself simply by reading the call reports, if you have the time and patience to do so. We didn't give them this money with an instruction sheet on what to do with it. We made an INVESTMENT in a highly regulated BUSINESS in the hopes that it would become financially healthier and continue to do what it does to make profits (i.e. lend money) so it can PAY US BACK WITH INTEREST. These are not gifts!


Alexandria, Va.: Financial Meltdown averted? Steve, I think you're being a bit premature don't you? It seems like we are still pretty deep in the woods to declare that the financial crisis has been averted. Its my guess that despite the treasury and the feds smoke and mirrors attempts to fix the problem, investors have no confidence in the system because these slugs have been allowed to stay firmly leeched onto our financial system and as a result the status quo will continue and in turn, they will continue sucking the lifeblood from hard working investors. I have money to invest in the stock market, but to tell you the truth, I'm scared as hell and a 4 percent APY return on my credit unions CD seems a lot better than a 50 percent drop where the financial system decides to take me to the woodshed. I think we are still in for a big implosion when everyone realizes that the government can't do anything about fixing the situation.

Or have I been perma-beared by the drubbing we took and the sun is just about to rise upon the darkness? Help me out here because I can't afford another wild ride like 2008

Steven Pearlstein: You may be right, there may be more financial turmoil ahead. But that isn't the question, is it. The question is whether the program has averted a meltdown so far, and the answer is yes.


Bitburg, Germany: What's the problem with limiting salaries at financial institutions that require a large investment of taxpayer dollars to stay afloat? I would argue in favor of letting some highly paid executives leave if they want. After all, where are they going to go?

Steven Pearlstein: You know, you can limit the salaries to zero and you won't accomplish anything other than make yourself feel like you've punished the right people. Executive salaries are a pimple on thebum of this elephant. Let's keep the eye on what matters, shall we?


Rick, Washington, DC: Let's stop this game, really. Its gotten quite silly.

Yes, lets stop the game. The game Congress and the Super Rich and Wall Street are playing on the average American.

All you are doing with these bailouts is extending the pain. How do you know that letting these companies fail will be a bad thing? Maybe, just maybe it's something that is needed and in the end, we'll come out stronger with BETTER business models and BETTER risk management. You seem to think that bailing out and keeping things afloat will this time correct things. I believe it's just going to empower them more. The best medicine is hard medicine. Time to start over from ground 0.

Steven Pearlstein: That's a very dangerous game you want to play. It will work, of course, and 25 years from now, we will be able to start growing again as an economy. But for those of us who live in the here and now, I think maybe the current strategy is a better one.


Mount Rainier, Md.: "So we need to chill out a bit here and have some faith in institutions and people and markets, particularly now that lots of people have learned important lessons about what not to do."

Have "they?" Really? I don't see it - and neither do most folks out here in real-world-land.

That aside, you are wrong about those of us who criticize TARP. We listened to the testimony of Sec. Paulson, and the bank ceo's and many economists, and were lead to believe that the banks were getting bailout funds for the express purposes of:

1) clearing their balance sheets of toxic loans and derived securities from those loans,

and 2) uncorking both interbank lending as well as lending to businesses to cover operational costs. Ordinary Americans have seen no evidence of either coming to fruition.

If what you say about recapitalization is true, the sell job was poor. Treasury and the MSM have only themselves to blame for that one. Just like Iraq, you can't keep changing the underlying reason government is doing something and expect people to believe you for very long.

Steven Pearlstein: It's true that they talked about buying up toxic loans and securities and its true they later concluded that they needed to recapitalize the banks first. Now they say they want to resume with the purchases. Now what are we to think of that change of strategy? One thing to think might be that this is hard stuff, the situation on the ground is changing every day, people make mistakes, and they are doing the best they can do prevent things from melting down. Another thing to think is that these are bad, stupid people who just want to take money from taxpayers and give it to their friends on Wall Street out of some deep-seeded, ideological longing to transfer wealth from the poor to the rich. I am in the first camp. What camp are you in?


McIntosh, Fla.: You said today that:

"there was a genuine fear that the banking system could collapse and bring the whole global economy down with it. (and) can't quarrel with the fact that a financial meltdown has been avoided as a direct result of the government's extraordinary interventions."

Yes, there was genuine fear, but could say how likely you thought a meltdown was? Was it a one in three chance? A one in ten?

Obvious question: If I tell you the sky is falling unless you give me a million dollars, you give it to me and the sky doesn't fall, that means the million was well worth it?

Steven Pearlstein: I think there was a 50-50 chance of a very, very bad meltdown.


Steven Pearlstein: That's all the time we have for today, folks. "See" you next week.


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