Kill the Bailout
By Robert Tracinski
The House of Representatives deserves praise for taking swift action to avert a growing economic crisis--by not approving the trillion-dollar financial bailout plan.
The bailout bill was blocked Monday by a rebellion among House Republicans, who voted two-to-one against a plan they consider a step down the "slippery slope to socialism," in the words of Texas Representative Jeb Hensarling.
They are absolutely correct, and the 133 Republicans who voted to stop this coup against the financial markets--not to mention some of the 95 Democrats who may have balked for similar reasons--need to find the courage to stand firm. That's especially true since the Senate has voted to approve the bailout.
The Senate is supposed to serve, in James Madison's analogy, as the "cooling saucer" for the hot tea served up by the House--but in this case, it is the House that has remained cool and refused to panic. That's because the hysterical demand for a bailout didn't come up from the people; it came down from the elites in Washington and Manhattan. The House is reflecting the sensible skepticism coming up from the folks on Main Street who don't want to pay the bills for bailing out Hank Paulson's former colleagues on Wall Street.
Some cold, realistic scrutiny of the bailout is desperately needed because this plan is not just an attack on the free market. It is an attack on reality. The financial crisis was caused by more than a decade of using government power to rewrite the facts of reality and override the judgment of the market, and the bailout just offers more of the same fantasy economics.
Congress wanted everyone to be able to get a mortgage to buy a home, regardless of income, credit history, or ability to save for a down payment. The name for this contradiction was "affordable housing," an initiative aimed at providing the benefits of home ownership to those who could not, in fact, afford it. So when the market concluded that low-income borrowers could not meet the credit requirements for mortgages, the Clinton administration invoked trumped-up charges of racism to expand enforcement of the Community Reinvestment Act, bullying banks into dropping as "arbitrary" such old-fashioned credit standards as proof of income. And when the market balked at the increased credit risk created by these loans, Congress backed the expansion of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, government-sponsored enterprises that used federally guaranteed money to buy up the increasingly risky mortgages.
At every point, when the market sent the message that reality would not support the higher level of risk being taken on by mortgage lenders, the government used its power to override this message.
The vigorous government-created market for riskier "sub-prime" loans masked the real dangers, creating the illusion that increased profits could be obtained without increased risk--an illusion that encouraged some private lenders to follow Fannie and Freddie's lead. To be sure, some of this private risk-taking was part of the normal process of failure in a capitalist economy. A large part of the current financial upheaval originated with high-risk investment banks and hedge funds that held large amounts of mortgage-backed securities. These securities were carefully balanced against one another according to mathematical formulas that were calculated to cancel out their risks. But the mathematical formulas were new and hadn't been tested in a bear market. When the downturn came, they failed.
This is a normal part of the rough and tumble of capitalism. All of the current talk about the "failure" of the free market ignores the fact that the process of failure is a crucial benefit of the free market. In a capitalist system, high-risk firms are always trying out new and untested ideas, and failure is the messenger that tells the market which strategies work and which strategies don't. It is also an indispensable corrective mechanism that moves capital from enterprises with failing strategies to those with successful strategies.
But the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve have repeatedly short-circuited this mechanism by trying to outlaw failure. When the market sent the message that too many bad loans had been made and that this needed to be corrected by a contraction in the amount of available credit, the government wanted to avoid the unpleasant consequences of such a contraction. So the Federal Reserve papered over the facts--with a flurry of paper money--by artificially reducing interest rates and loosening up credit just when it needed to be tightened.
But that didn't change the underlying facts, and the bad investments still went bad. Yet as the market has sent the message that some firms have become over-extended and are no longer solvent, the government has still tried to avoid letting the market face the facts. The Treasury and the Fed kept trying to rewrite reality by orchestrating a series of government-backed bailouts.
Over at RealClearMarkets, Joseph Calhoun points out a crucial part of this assault on facts:There has always been a stigma attached to borrowing directly from the Fed and for good reason. If a bank can't get other banks to lend it money, that tells the market something about the condition of the bank in question. Last August, Bernanke convinced three large banks to borrow at the discount window in an effort to remove that stigma. When that didn't work, he concocted a scheme to allow banks to borrow from the Fed in anonymity via a mechanism he called the Term Auction Facility. When Bear Stearns blew up, he added the Term Securities Lending Facility for investment banks. By removing the stigma of borrowing from the Fed and hiding the identity of the borrowers, Bernanke removed important information from the market.
So the Fed's approach to potential bank failures was to try to help failing banks pretend that they weren't failing.
Or consider the SEC's ban on short sales for a list of about 700 stocks--with more companies lobbying to get themselves put on the list. Again, the whole approach of the SEC is not to prevent companies from failing, but to help them pretend that they are not failing, by outlawing trades that would tend to drive their stock prices down.
In fact, all that this sort of policy has achieved is to expand business failures. When Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, for example, it had been in negotiations with several major financial institutions who were considering investing billions in a private buy-out of the firm. But they balked at making the deal because they were waiting for the Fed to offer incentives and guarantees. Thus, the Fed's yelping about how each bankruptcy of a Wall Street firm poses a risk of "systemic failure" turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the prospect of an open-ended series of bailouts is blocking all of the mechanisms by which a free market actually prevents widespread failure.
The bailout package would have the government buy out up to $700 billion worth of bad loans. But this is merely delaying the re-pricing of those loans to their proper value. Left to themselves, the holders of these loans would eventually find it necessary to sell them at pennies on the dollar; Merrill Lynch sold its bad loans at 22 cents on the dollar. Private companies could then recognize the magnitude of the loss and start to rebuild their businesses with the remaining assets they possess. But now no firm has an incentive to sell off its bad loans. Why dump them for 22 cents on the dollar when the government might buy them, a few weeks later, at 50 or 80 cents?
So instead what is going to happen is that the federal government is going to go into the financial markets and dictate which securities are worth how much. It is still unclear exactly which loans the government will buy or how much it will pay for them, so no private investor can say whether an investment will pay off or not. This is how the prospect of a government bailout blocks the private buyouts that would actually clean all of the bad debt out of the system.
Instead, this plan transforms the US Treasury into a trillion-dollar hedge fund, making investments in securities whose proper market value is unknown and promising its shareholders--us--that unlike the best Wall Street investment banks, Treasury bureaucrats really know how to make a profit on sub-prime mortgage loans. That's why probably the best comment on the bailout is an e-mail making the rounds on Capitol Hill presenting Paulson's pitch for the bailout deal--in the style of a Nigerian banking scam. "I need to ask you to support an urgent secret business relationship with a transfer of funds of great magnitude," it begins. Time to hit the "delete" button.
The bailout represents more of the same problems that got us here because it is backed by all of the same people who created those problems. And I'm not just talking about Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, who organized the series of ad hoc bailouts that spread uncertainty through the financial industry. Much worse is the fact that a chief negotiator for the bailout is House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, the chief sponsor of the "affordable housing" scam. And as for Barack Obama, Stanley Kurtz exposes the role played by ACORN, Obama's former employer as a "community organizer." It turns out that a big part of ACORN's "community organizing" was to use thug tactics and the threat of government regulation to intimidate banks into making high-risk mortgage loans.
Fortunately, the public has the good sense to smell that something is rotten. I just got an e-mail recounting what Virginia Representative Jim Moran told Fox News: that calls from constituents commenting on the bailout were running 50-50--50% "no" and 50% "hell, no."
The House should not simply delay the bailout bill or mitigate its worst features; that will prolong the uncertainty in the financial markets. Instead, they need to make sure that the bailout meets with firm and repeated rejection over the next week, preferably by a growing margin of votes.
It is time for the House to kill the bailout and kill it decisively.
It is time for Congress to stop the government from rewriting reality, so that the market can be free to recognize the facts, pick up the pieces of failing firms, and begin rebuilding.
Robert Tracinski writes daily commentary at TIADaily.com. He is the editor of The Intellectual Activist and TIADaily.com.
An Explanation Of Why The Bailout Is Bad
You want a good explanation of why the bailout is bad? Read this