Bailout Questions Answered
I’m being asked two big questions about this thing: (1) Was it really necessary? (2) Shouldn’t Dems have tossed the whole Paulson approach out the window and done something completely different?
On (1), the answer is yes. It’s true that some parts of the real economy are doing OK even in the face of financial disruption; big companies can still sell bonds (and have lots of cash on hand), qualifying home buyers can still get Fannie-Freddie mortgages, and so on. But commercial paper, which is important to a lot of businesses, is in trouble, and I’m hearing anecdotes about reduced credit lines causing smaller businesses to pull back. Plus there’s a serious chance of a run on the hedge funds, which could make things a lot worse.
With the economy already looking like it’s headed into a serious recession by
any definition, the risks of doing nothing look too high.
It’s true that we might be able to stagger through with more case-by-case rescues — I think of this as the “two, three, many AIGs” strategy; in fact, we might not be at this point if Paulson hadn’t decided to make an example of Lehman. But right now it’s not even clear who to rescue, and the credit markets are freezing up as you read this (1-month t-bill at 0.04 %, TED spread at 3.5)
On (2), the call is tougher. But putting myself in Barney Frank or Nancy Pelosi’s shoes, I’d look at it this way: the Democrats could start over, with a bailout plan that is, say, centered on purchases of preferred stock and takeovers of failing firms — basically, a plan clearly focused on recapitalizing the financial sector, with nationalization where necessary.
That’s what the plan should have looked like.
Maybe such a plan would have passed Congress; and maybe, just maybe Bush would have signed on; Paulson is certainly desperate for a deal.
But such a plan would have had next to no Republican votes — and the Republicans would have demagogued against it full tilt. And the Democratic leadership cannot, cannot, be seen to have sole ownership of this stuff.
So that, I think, is why it had to be done this way. I don’t like it, and I don’t like the plan, but I see the constraints under which Dodd, Frank, Pelosi, and Reid were operating.