For all the ink, just how serious is the savings and loan bailout in the American financial scheme of things? Every day now, the headlines become a little more lurid.
To staunch the flow, Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady said last week that about 423 thrifts could require $90 billion, or even $120 billion, up from $50 billion earlier. What with interest, the bill could hit $500 billion, or $2,000 for every man, woman and child in the nation.
What an unprecedented mess!
Well, maybe it is not entirely unprecedented. Remember the farm crisis of a few years ago -- Willie Nelson's Farm-Aid Concert and all that? In 1980, farm price supports cost taxpayers barely $3 billion a year. By the mid-1980s a "farm crisis" was on the front pages, costing more than $20 billion a year. The cost peaked at $26 billion in 1986, before settling back to around $10 billion a year. Then the Farm Credit System required a bailout, a $4 billion federal guarantee that was, to that point, the largest bank bailout in history.
Sum those numbers over a decade and you get figures more or less like those being tossed around today, minus the interest costs. The farm bailout would cost Americans about $100 billion during the next decade, or so the newspapers could have written in mid-1980s.
How come they didn't? Well, there are important differences between the farm bailout and the S&L mess, but there are some important similarities, too. As with the thrifts, the farm problem had its proximate cause in the sudden slowing of inflation and the collapse in land values and farm prices that occurred in the early 1980s.
Farmers who had been borrowing heavily to buy more land and to plant suddenly found themselves awash in red ink. Government guarantees reinforced their behavior. So Congress scrambled to prop up commodity prices to enable debtors to continue to repay their loans, and beefed up the capital of the sprawling Farm Credit System. As with the troubled thrifts, the chief beneficiaries of this government largess were the high rollers and the inattentive among the agricultural community -- about 70 percent of farmers had no need of federal price supports, at least when the decade began.
But then the farm crisis was never seen as a scandal. It was the product of acts of commission rather than sins of omission. Starting in 1981, legislators from farm states openly sought and obtained aid for their constituents, who were acknowledged to be threatened. Bills were written, debated, modified, passed.
In contrast, the S&L crisis developed first through regulatory goading, then through lack of congressional oversight. Aware that the balance sheets of many of the nation's thrifts were in trouble in the early 1980s, regulators urged bankers to "grow their way out" of difficulty by dramatically expanding their portfolio of loans -- a strategy Paul Krugman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has aptly dubbed ''double or nothing.''
By the time regulators became seriously alarmed at the effect of their (ostensibly) benign neglect, it was too late. Bankers had begun suborning congressmen directly to look the other way. Jim Wright (D-Tex.), then speaker of the House, sought to hold up budget requests from the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Co.; senators intervened directly with regulators on constituents' behalf.
It's the moral gravity of the governmental failure to come to grips with the problem, more than anything else, that accounts for the constant use in public discourse of the truly heavy numbers -- of the current value of the eventual cost of the bailout added up over the life of the project. Robert Litan of the Brookings Institution has calculated that it would have cost only $15 billion in 1981 to close those savings and loans whose net worth was already negative.
As with the farm credit system bailout, federal regulators of the thrifts began by tapping the retained earnings of healthy system members to keep the troubled thrifts afloat. The measure was enough to keep the farm system going, but the thrift surplus was quickly drained. So now the nation will be forced to spend $15 billion every year, year after year after year, until the last troubled thrift has been merged or gone broke, some hundreds of billions of dollars later. The adding-up of those costs into a single imposing lump sum is a way of emphasizing that they could have been avoided, if only Ronald Reagan or some bold legislator or imaginative regulator had found a way to call a halt to the process. As economist Krugman says: "The S&L story is one of almost incredibly irresponsible federal policy, repeated year after year, and still it goes on."
In a $5 trillion economy, the cost of the rescue of the thrifts isn't going to break the government bank. Neither will the continuing need to pay farmers to overproduce some crops and to fallow their land. The Farm Bill of 1990, whose important provisions are now being written by Congress, will cost about $60 billion in price supports over its five-year life, or just about half of what Brady calculated to be the likely cost of the S&L bailout. Although a coalition led by Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Richard Armey (R-Tex.) is determined to trim the bill's most outrageous provisions, it still seems likely that the act will in the end bear more than a passing resemblance to the ongoing bailout of the thrifts.
The farm bill is irritating. And the S&L price tag is appalling. But each is, to a considerable extent, part of the overhead of doing business in a democracy. Each is manageable, at least if the authorities quit fooling around. The real question is whether Congress and the Bush administration can agree to exercise some comprehensive discipline over the budgetary process. If they can, we can then proceed to bind up the nation's fiscal wounds and to reclaim a central place in an increasingly challenging world.
David Warsh is a columnist for the Boston Globe.