Washington Prepares the Mother of All Bailouts

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(Left) Alan Schein Photography / Corbis; Gero Breloer / dpa / Corbis

Even after committing $285 billion over the past couple of weeks to bail out mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and insurer AIG, the Federal Government is now looking to fork over more — much more.

The Treasury Department and Federal Reserve now are making plans to buy troubled mortgage securities en masse from banks and other financial firms. This would amount to moving from ad hoc loans and bailouts to a more systematic approach to resolving the bad-debt problems at the heart of the current financial crisis. Systematic apparently sounds good — the Dow jumped 400 points after CNBC first reported Thursday that such an effort was in the works, and on Friday, markets around the world opened sharply higher. But the price tag could be steep. "We're talking hundreds of billions," Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson said at a press conference Friday morning. "This needs to be big enough to make a real difference and get at the heart of the problem." The more alarmist economists are saying the cost of resolving the current crisis will exceed $1 trillion. To put that in context, total U.S. government spending in 2007 was $2.7 trillion.

The closest historical parallel to this effort is the Resolution Trust Corporation, which was formed by Congress in 1989 to buy up and dispose of the assets of failed savings and loans. The difference is that while the RTC took over the assets of corporate corpses already in government hands, the assets everybody's worried about now are on the books of still alive banks, investment banks and other firms. The idea would be to get them off the books of these institutions, hold on to them for a few years and possibly try to renegotiate their terms to slow foreclosures. The big challenge will be coming up with a way to do this that avoids bestowing a wholly unearned windfall on the shareholders of the companies ditching the toxic securities.

There's also the question of whether Congress, which was planning to adjourn at the end of next week so its members could go home to campaign for re-election, could create such an entity on short notice. On Wednesday the answer from several key lawmakers was no, but on Thursday House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told President Bush she'd keep the chamber in session longer if needed. It's also possible that the Treasury and the Fed could come up with an improvised solution that doesn't need congressional approval. Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke visited Capitol Hill Thursday night to talk over the possibilities, and Paulson said Friday that he would "spend the weekend working with members of Congress of both parties" to come up with legislation that he hoped to pass "over the next week." In the meantime, Treasury on Friday announced a $50 billion guarantee program meant to calm mounting fears about the safety of money-market mutual funds.

Why should government (and by extension taxpayers) even be contemplating such action? The clearest explanation is probably that of Paul McCulley, a managing director of the money-management firm PIMCo, who wrote an essay last summer on "The Paradox of Deleveraging" that continues to resonate in financial and economic circles. When a debt-fueled investment bubble bursts, financial institutions that make their living off borrowed money (banks, investment banks, hedge funds) tend to want to reduce their leverage — their ratio of debt to equity. That's perfectly rational. But when everybody does it at the same time, big trouble ensues. "[N]ot all leveraged lenders can shed assets and the associated debt at the same time without driving down asset prices, which has the paradoxical impact of increasing leverage by driving down lenders' net worth." Basically, if all lenders de-leverage at once, the financial system implodes — and everybody, not just the bankers, suffers.

To halt this implosion, somebody has to leverage up, not down, and acquire assets, not sell them. The government is the institution in by far the best position to do so. The Federal Reserve System can play this role on a short-term basis — halting panics by lending dollars in exchange for momentarily hard-to-sell assets, as it did early Thursday morning. But while the exigencies of the moment have led it to make longer-term investments in Bear Stearns and now AIG, it's widely agreed that this is bad policy. "The Fed is the guardian of the currency," says William Silber, a professor of finance and economics at New York University. "That's its job. Its job is not to subsidize people who made credit mistakes."

And whose job would that be? Well, it's your job, U.S. taxpayers! If this seems unfair, that's because it is. Mortgage brokers, investment bankers, house flippers and other sharpies got rich causing this mess. Now all of us have to pay to fix it. The one possible bright side is that, if done right, bailouts don't ultimately have to cost a lot of money. If the government buys assets when everybody's panicked and sells them when markets have calmed down again, it could even turn a profit.

For ongoing coverage of the financial crisis, go to http://time-blog.com/curious_capitalist/.