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No Blank Cheque for Wall Street


According to George Bush, our financial structure is in such desperate shape that if Congress doesn’t hand a $700bn blank cheque to Henry Paulson, the US Treasury secretary, immediately, the whole structure will collapse. While no one should doubt the damage that Bush’s policies have done to the economy, the fact is that Congress has some time to structure a bailout that is not just another give-away to the richest people in the country.

The policies of President Bush and the recklessness of the Wall Street crew did bring the financial system to the edge of an abyss. There was a near meltdown last week as Lehman Brothers, the huge investment bank, collapsed, and AIG, the nation’s largest insurer, followed suit. Banks stopped lending to each other, creating a situation in which our system of payments (eg cheques and electronic transfers) stopped functioning.

The Federal Reserve Board and the Treasury then took a variety of extraordinary measures to patch things together and get the financial system working again. These measures should be sufficient to give Congress the time to structure a bailout that does more to benefit the public than Wall Street.

Everyone should understand that we are in this mess for two reasons. First the financial regulators, both in the Bush administration and more importantly at the Fed, were completely asleep for most of the decade. As the housing bubble grew to ever more dangerous proportions, and lenders adopted increasingly questionable lending practices, the regulators did nothing.

The other reason we are in this mess is that the Wall Street banks got themselves hugely leveraged in real estate and other assets. In many cases they had no appreciation of the value of the underlying assets. They also apparently did not understand the complex financial derivatives that they had themselves created.

Now this situation has exploded in their faces, sinking several of the country’s largest financial firms and bringing dozens of others near the cliff. As a result of this recklessness, the economy is now facing a recession with the unemployment rate rising rapidly. Millions of families are losing their homes.

So what is Bush proposing? He is telling Congress that everything can be put back in order if they just give $700bn to Paulson, with no strings attached.

Keep in mind that Paulson is himself one of the Wall Street gang, a former head of Goldman Sachs who pocketed hundreds of millions of dollars from the sort of deals that have wrecked the economy. He also managed to get just about everything wrong in his assessment of the economy. He missed the housing bubble altogether, dismissing the concerns raised by those warning of a bubble. He then underestimated the seriousness of the financial crisis at every turn, assuring the public that the problems that first arose in the subprime mortgage market would have little impact on the economy or the financial sector.

We cannot afford to give Paulson a blank cheque. Congress must first insist on some serious accountability in the bailout process. That means a board that involves congressional appointees and a high level of transparency, rather than just allowing Paulson to spend the money as he pleases.

Congress should also insist that the Wall Street crew pays for its own incompetence. An absolute cap of $2m in annual compensation for any executive of any firm taking part in the bailout seems fair. The taxpayers should also be compensated for their support. The government should acquire an ownership stake in the companies that it bails out. For example, for every $10bn in bad debts it buys, the government should get $2bn in stock. That way, the taxpayers stand to get back some of their money.

There are more conditions that should be imposed as part of the bailout, but the key point is that Congress has time to structure the bailout to serve the country’s interest. It should not allow itself it to be bullied into giving the Bush administration a huge blank cheque. This is exactly what it did when it authorised the war in Iraq, and we all know how that one turned out.

– This article was published on September 22, 2008 by The Guardian Unlimited.

 

Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer (http://www.conservativenannystate.org). He also has a blog, "Beat the Press", where he discusses the media’s coverage of economic issues.

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