THE ADMINISTRATION and affected members of Congress continue to try to distance themselves from the savings and loan bailout and suggest that there are easier solutions . . . if only someone in authority would adopt them. The latest such efforts occurred at a Senate Banking Committee hearing last week on a request by the the Resolution Trust Corp. for -- what else? -- more money, please.
All sides agreed that the money had to be provided -- spilt milk and all that -- but how much? Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, rather than embrace a particular figure, suggested (not without cause) that this time the provision be open-ended, since sooner or later Congress would have to vote aye but last time -- just before the election -- it had failed to do so, adding to costs.
Democrats quickly replied that one of the reasons Congress adjourned without acting was that the administration had also failed to act: for months it refused to submit a specific request, for fear that it would be identified with the higher cost (and have to confess to the higher deficit the cost implied).
So much for parliamentary history; next came analysis. The outlines of the savings and loan failure are well known. The deregulated industry helped to fuel the economic expansion of the 1980s by using government-insured deposits to make increasingly speculative real estate and other loans. When those went bad, the government as insurer had to make the depositors whole; now it is trying to sell the real estate and other debris to recover what it can of its losses.
The contradictory pressures are to sell as quickly as possible but at the highest possible price (a distress sale without windfalls) and without flooding the market and undermining real estate and other values (or the balance sheets of banks and other lenders, also federally insured) in the midst of a recession. You try it. Among other things, the government itself is financing the sale of some of these assets, solving the problem in part by transferring the risks to different accounts.
And what did the Banking Committee -- which, of course, had oversight over the savings and loan industry through the giddiest years -- suggest? Well, several members said they were not about to give the administration a blank check for fear of losing their oversight authority. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y) said the Federal Reserve Board was the problem; the real estate would sell if only the Fed would lower interest rates. Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) thought it was the tax code; real estate would become more attractive if only Congress would cut the capital gains tax (and undo a little more of tax reform as well). Still other senators said the bailout bureaucracy was the problem; people who want to make a deal "can't get an answer." But Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) had the simplest proposal; he would ban the term bailout. The government isn't saving the savings and loans, he rightly observed, only their depositors; "this is not a bailout; it's a contract." If only the public can be made to understand that it is paying this money to itself, perhaps it will all be okay.