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Robert Reich: The Bailout of All Bailouts is a Bad Idea

September 19, 2008

Robert Reich

On Capitol Hill, Senator Charles Schumer suggested that government inject funds into financial companies in exchange for equity stakes and pledges to rewrite mortgages and make them more affordable. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Hank Paulson reportedly is considering an agency like the Resolution Trust Corporation, established during the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s, to take bad debts off the balance sheets of financial institutions.

Problems are: (1) It’s not likely to do all that much good because no one knows how much bad debt there is out there. Even if the government bought a lot of it, investors and lenders still couldn’t be sure how much remained. After all, big banks have already written down hundreds of billions of bad debts, and that hasn’t restored confidence in the Street. As the economy slows, bad debts will grow. Again, the problem isn’t a liquidity or solvency crisis; it’s a crisis of trust.

(2) However much bad debt there may be, that amount is surely far greater than the $394 billion of real estate, mortgages, and other assets that the old RTC bought from hundreds of failed savings-and-loans — thereafter selling them off for whatever it could get for them. The Bailout of All Bailouts would therefore put taxpayers at far greater risk than they are even today, and require an unprecedented role for government in reselling assets. Another major step toward socialized capitalism.

The only way Wall Street’s meltdown doesn’t spill over to Main Street is if policymakers begin to pay adequate attention to the people whose wallets really keep the economy going.

A better idea would be for the Fed and Treasury to organize a giant workout of Wall Street — essentially, a reorganization under bankruptcy, for whatever firms wanted to join in. Equity would be eliminated, along with most preferred stock, creditors would be paid off to the extent possible. And then the participants would start over with clean balance sheets that reflected new, agreed-upon rules for full disclosure, along with minimum capitalization. Everyone would know where they stood. Bad debts would be eliminated. Taxpayers wouldn’t get left holding the bag. And there would be no “moral hazard” incentive for future financial wizards to take giant risks with other taxpayers’ money.

Congress, the Fed, and the Administration shouldn’t be giving more help to Wall Street. Policymakers should focus instead on people who really need a safety net right now — workers who have lost or are about to lose their jobs, who need extended unemployment insurance and health insurance for themselves and their families; homeowners who have lost or are likely to lose their homes, who need additional help meeting mortgage payments and reorganizing their debts; and people who have lost or are in danger of losing their savings or pensions, who need better insurance against possible loss.

The only way Wall Street’s meltdown doesn’t spill over to Main Street is if policymakers begin to pay adequate attention to the people whose wallets really keep the economy going, and who merit more help than the Wall Street tycoons whose carelessness and negligence have put it in such jeopardy.

Robert B. Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written eleven books (including his most recent, Supercapitalism). Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s “Marketplace” are heard by nearly five million people. This entry appeared on his blog.

Copyright 2008 Robert B. Reich

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