Put on the Brakes

September 20, 2008 9:47 p.m.

As noted in the previous post, I’m quite convinced that some drastic action needs to be taken to avoid a cascading and debilitating series of crises. But the more I look at this plan, the more wrongheaded it seems. But if I’m understanding this deal, the taxpayers are going to pony up close to a trillion dollars to take bad debts off the hands of financial institutions who were foolish enough to make the deals in the first place. And in exchange, I think the tax payers get nothing? Sebastian Mallaby makes the good point that this is radically different than the S&L Crisis RTC which was liquidating the assets of thrifts that had already gone belly up — paid the ultimate price, as it were. And as the insurer on the accounts, the government inherited the assets anyway. It was just a matter of selling them off. But here the point is to take these bad debts off these companies’ hands so they can go back to being profitable businesses. This is moral hazard on steroids if I’m understanding this right.

Also, according to the Journal, finance industry lobbyists are already giving orders to Republican hill staffers not to allow any meaningful reforms or protections for taxpayers. So, just the money. No strings attached.

House Republican staffers met with roughly 15 lobbyists Friday afternoon, whose message to lawmakers was clear: Don’t load the legislation up with provisions not directly related to the crisis, or regulatory measures the industry has long opposed.

“We’re opposed to adding provisions that will affect [or] undermine the deal substantively,” said Scott Talbott, senior vice president of government affairs at the Financial Services Roundtable, whose members include the nation’s largest banks, securities firms and insurers.

A deal killer for the group: a proposal that would grant bankruptcy judges new powers to lower the principal, interest rate or both on a mortgage as part of a bankruptcy proceeding.

Late Update: Mulling this more and listening to the insights in your emails, the key clearly is how much the government pays for these distressed assets. They may be bad debts. But that doesn’t mean they have no value at all. Bought at the right prices and given time on the books — which the government is uniquely in a position to allow them to do — the government could even turn a profit on some of them. But the key is at what price they’re bought and whose get bought. That seems like precisely the kind of process that requires oversight and accountability to make sure the taxpayer doesn’t get fleeced.

Dancing on the Edge of the Abyss Update: Paul Krugman has a post up that I think tracks basically along the lines I’ve raised — only from the viewpoint of someone who has a profound understanding of these things rather than no understanding at all. He says, no deal.

Yep, It’s Crap Update: I can’t seem to find any of the people who I respect thinking the bailout plan, as presented, is a good idea.

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