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Robert Reich: What Actually Needs to be Done About the Meltdown

October 21, 2008

Robert Reich

The Dow is see-sawing but the reality is that the Bailout of All Bailouts isn’t working. Credit markets are largely still frozen. Despite all the money going directly to the big banks, despite all the government guarantees and loans and special tax breaks, despite the shot-gun weddings and bank mergers, despite the willingness of the Treasury and the Fed to do almost whatever the banks have asked, the reality is that credit is not flowing. It’s not flowing to distressed homeowners. It’s not flowing to small businesses. It’s not flowing to would-be homeowners with good credit ratings. Students are having a harder time borrowing for their tuition. Auto loans are drying up.

Why? Because the underlying problem isn’t a liquidity problem. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the problem is that lenders and investors don’t trust they’ll get their money back because no one trusts that the numbers that purport to value securities are anything but wishful thinking. The trouble, in a nutshell, is that the financial entrepreneurship of recent years — the derivatives, credit default swaps, collateralized debt instruments, and so on — has undermined all notion of true value.

Many of these fancy instruments became popular over recent years precisely because they circumvented financial regulations, especially rules on banks’ capital adequacy. Big banks created all these off-balance-sheet vehicles because they allowed the big banks to carry less capital.

Paulson is recapitalizing the banks — giving them money directly rather than relying on reverse auctions — largely because he’s come to understand that the banks have taken on so much debt that the reverse auction system he told Congress he would use(designed to place a market value on these fancy-dance instruments) will leave too many banks insolvent.

But pouring money into these banks, expecting they’ll turn around and lend to small businesses and Main Streets, is like pouring water into a dry sponge. Nothing will come out of it because Wall Street is so deep in debt that the banks are using the extra money to improve their balance sheets. They’re hoarding it because their true balance sheets — considering the off-balance sheet vehicles they created over the past several years — are in such rotten shape.

In other words, taxpayers are financing a massive effort to save Wall Street’s balance sheets from Wall Street’s previous off-balance-sheet excesses. It won’t work. It can’t work. The entire effort is merely saving the asses of lots of executives and traders who got us into this mess in the first place, and whose asses should not be saved at taxpayer risk and expense.

What to do? Immediately require the Treasury to stop the broad Wall Street recapitalization, and require Wall Street to lend the money directly to Main Street. At the same time, force Wall Street to write down its true balance sheets: Let the executives and traders take the hit. Let their shareholders and even their creditors take the hit for Wall Street’s collosal irresponsibility. This is the only true way to restore trust. It’s also the only way to save Main Street’s small businesses, homeowners, students, and everyone else.

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, which is now out in paperback). 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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