Hold your hosses!

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09/23/2008
Nervous about this Wall Street bailout? Me too. On today’s Times op-ed page, columnist Bob Herbert said we should seek a second opinion on treasury secretary Henry Paulson’s bailout recommendation. (Herbert is hardly alone, plenty of pundits of all political stripes, economists, not to mention plain old taxpayers—agree.) Something needs to be done, and soon, but we’re talking about $700 billion. Read that slowly: seven hundred billion dollars. That’s a staggering amount of money, and this bailout’s got to work, the first time. As Herbert says, it just makes sense to take a couple days to explore “the weak points, the loopholes, the potential unintended consequences of a bailout of this magnitude.” Herbert points out “Lobbyists, bankers and Wall Street types are already hopping up and down like over-excited children, ready to burst into the government’s $700 billion piñata. This widespread eagerness is itself an indication that there is something too sweet about the Paulson plan.” He notes a very important point--that the bailout is not supposed to be a good deal for business, and quotes economist Dean Baker: “The idea is that you’re coming here because you would be going bankrupt otherwise,” said Mr. Baker. “You’re coming here because you have no alternative. You’re getting a bad deal, but it’s better than going out of business. That’s how it should be structured.” So, how should it be structured? I'm not sure, but let's at least talk about it a little. There's an interesting story In the Times business section about an successful early 90’s bailout in Sweden, which had managed to get itself into big problems because of "imprudent regulation, short-sighted economic policy and the end of its property boom." From the story: Sweden did not just bail out its financial institutions by having the government take over the bad debts. It extracted pounds of flesh from bank shareholders before writing checks. Banks had to write down losses and issue warrants to the government. That strategy held banks responsible and turned the government into an owner. When distressed assets were sold, the profits flowed to taxpayers, and the government was able to recoup more money later by selling its shares in the companies as well. “If I go into a bank,” said Bo Lundgren, who was Sweden’s finance minister at the time, “I’d rather get equity so that there is some upside for the taxpayer.” So what happened? According to this story, Sweden spent 4 percent of its GDP to rescue the banks. (The $700 billion bailout represents roughly 5 percent of the American GDP, the story says.) The final cost to Sweden, the story says, was 2 percent of GDP (though some say it was closer to zero) and Sweden seems to have survived very well thank you since that time. When my five brothers and sisters and I were kids, things from time to time got a little crazy in my house. When it was time to slow down and take a breather, my mother used to say (ok she used to yell) , "Hold your hosses!" (That's horses, for those of you who didn't grow up near Boston.) That's what Congress needs to do. This is a big deal. Let's get it right. We've got time to debate these issues. We don't have time to get it wrong.