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Credit Crisis Triggers Unprecedented U.S. Response

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 9, 2008; Page A01

Since the credit crisis erupted a year ago, the Bush administration has presided over one of the broadest expansions of the government into private lending in U.S. history, risking public money to prop up financial firms both large and small.

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The administration has transformed federal agencies into dominant players in such diverse realms as student lending and mortgage finance while exposing itself to trillions of dollars in loans.

The scope of these commitments demonstrates the unprecedented nature of the challenge facing the nation. Not since the Great Depression have so many debt markets been in turmoil at the same time, financial historians say. During the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s, for example, the financial upheaval was largely contained to banks and thrifts, though the real estate market also felt the impact.

Now, the contagion has rapidly spread from mortgages to bonds and exotic securities, student and corporate lending, credit cards and home equity loans, and residential and commercial real estate. The disruption has buffeted investment and commercial banks, mortgage finance agencies, and insurance firms of different stripes.

"We have a banking crisis and an agency crisis and a mortgage crisis and a coming credit card crisis. We've never seen anything like that before. And it all seems to be coming home to roost at the same time. That's never happened either," said Charles Geisst, professor of finance at Manhattan College. He said the Great Depression was the last time financial markets were hammered by such a variety of factors. "But we did not even have credit cards in the 1930s; there were no such thing as student loans," he added.

The breadth and speed of events have sent federal officials scrambling to plug leaks in the financial system. In the process, the government has bound taxpayers to the fate of a wide variety of banks and borrowers and could ultimately be responsible for losses in the tens of billions of dollars or more, according to estimates by congressional reports and interviews with regulators.

But the government may also end up paying nothing at all, largely because it received collateral in return for backing much of these debts and could recoup some money if borrowers stop making their interest payments. No one knows for sure because much of the government's response involved novel programs designed to contain an unpredictable crisis.

As the credit crisis worsened, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., a strong proponent of free markets and the architect of much of the administration's response, began to push initiatives that enlarged the government's involvement on Wall Street and in the housing industry.

"What I've said is that I'm playing the hand that was dealt and that my responsibility is to protect the U.S. economy and the American people," Paulson said in an interview.

The pace of these interventions accelerated as the credit crisis spread across the capital markets.

At first, the administration avoided programs that exposed taxpayers to potentially large losses. The Federal Housing Administration, for instance, offered struggling mortgage holders a chance to refinance into low-cost loans backed by the government with any losses borne by the agency's insurance fund. Last summer, Paulson also pressed private mortgage lenders to form an alliance called Hope Now to rework mortgages. The initiative did not require public funds, except to set up a hotline, and it may have prevented lawmakers at that time from pursuing more expensive initiatives, he said.

Within months, however, Paulson was directing more significant intrusions into the markets. In March, he strongly endorsed the Fed leaders' decision to put $29 billion in public money on the line to facilitate the takeover of the crippled investment firm Bear Stearns by Wall Street bank J.P. Morgan Chase.


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