There’s a turn of phrase I hate in the current discussion, because it sounds smart and serious but is in fact a complete evasion of the key issue. And I’m sorry to say that Ben Bernanke uses it in today’s testimony:

More generally, removing these assets [i.e., toxic mortgage-related waste] from institutions’ balance sheets will help to restore confidence in our financial markets and enable banks and other institutions to raise capital and to expand credit to support economic growth.

“Removing these assets from institutions’ balance sheets” — what an evasive phrase.

I mean, any bank that wants to remove toxic assets from its balance sheet can do it at a stroke — just declare them worthless, and poof! they’re gone. But of course, that would reduce confidence and capital, not increase it — and that’s not what Hank and Ben are talking about. They’re talking about turning the assets over to Uncle Sam, and getting cold hard cash in return. And then the question is how much cash they get in return. It’s all about the price.

Now, if the price Treasury pays is very low — anything comparable to what financial institutions are able to sell the stuff for now — it’s going to do nothing for confidence and capital. If the price is high, confidence and capital will improve — but taxpayers may well take a big loss. The premise of the Paulson plan– though never stated bluntly — is that these assets are hugely underpriced, so that Uncle Sam can buy them at prices that help the financial industry a lot, without big losses for taxpayers. Are you prepared to bet $700 billion on that premise?

But how can we help the financial situation without making that bet? By taking an equity stake. That way, if it turns out that the feds are pumping money in at above-fair prices, at least they get ownership, just as a private white knight would have.

There is no, repeat no justification for refusing to grant equity warrants that provide some taxpayer protection. This is, for me, an absolute deal or no-deal point.