Henry Paulson's $700 billion plan to save the world is dead or dying, but the bailout was not killed by his arrogance or his grossly misleading claims about what the public's money would buy. The plan collapsed because it didn't work. The Treasury secretary has launched a PR offensive to revive his falling influence. Too late. The Democrats should be equally embarrassed. In September their leaders in Congress rushed to embrace the Paulson solution, no hard questions asked. They now claim they were duped.
Paulson's squad at Treasury pumped $250 billion into the largest banks, buying their stock at inflated prices on the assumption it would persuade investors to step forward with their capital too. Instead, savvy financial players realized Paulson was spitting into a high wind, trying to save a system with stout talk.
Here is the ugly, unofficial truth that neither Wall Street nor the government will acknowledge: the pinnacle of the US financial system is broke--with perhaps $2 trillion in rotten financial assets on the books. Nobody knows, exactly. The bankers won't say, and regulators won't ask, or at least don't dare tell the public. Official silence naturally feeds the conviction that banking's problems are far worse than we've been told. The Levy Economics Institute of Bard College puts it plainly: "It is probable that many and perhaps most financial institutions are insolvent today--with a black hole of negative net worth that would swallow Paulson's entire $700 billion in one gulp."
The scale of this disaster explains why the Treasury secretary had to abandon his original plan to buy up failed mortgages and other bad assets from the banks. If government paid the true value for these nearly worthless assets, the banks would have to write down huge losses or, as Levy economists put it, "announce to the world that they are insolvent." On the other hand, if Paulson pumps the purchase price high enough to protect the banks from losses, $700 billion "will buy only a tiny fraction of the 'troubled' assets."
Paulson was trapped by these circumstances (and his own mendacity). Each time he tried to change the script, market insiders became even more alarmed. Congress is trapped too. So is President-elect Obama. From the outset of the crisis, the essential fallacy shared by governing influentials has been a wishful assumption that quick interventions with tons of public money would somehow restore the system to "normal" without disturbing free-market principles. Replenished banks would start lending again and lead us to recovery. "Normal" is not going to happen. If the new president does not break free of the denial and act decisively, his administration will be dangerously compromised from the start.
Obama can begin by declaring a "bank holiday" like FDR's in 1933--an opportunity to put the hard facts on the table and assume temporary control of the entire financial system. Nationalizing the banks sounds more radical than it is, since banking law already empowers regulators to impose extraordinary controls and close supervision over troubled institutions. Facing facts will be painful, but it's better than continuing a costly charade. Paulson's approach, endorsed by many Democrats, was designed to preserve oversized Wall Street titans. In fact, Paulson and the Federal Reserve are making things worse by creating new members of the privileged club of "too big to fail." Public money is being used to finance bank takeovers that will become new behemoths.
A genuine solution means closing down the hopeless institutions and creating a more democratic system based on small to medium-sized banks, financial intermediaries that are less imperious and closer to the real economy of producers and consumers. The Levy institute suggests that some banks are "too big to save." If the president-elect seeks an opinion quite different from his circle of orthodox advisers, he could start with the institute's tartly incisive analysis "Time to Bail Out: Alternatives to the Bush-Paulson Plan," by Dimitri Papadimitriou and Randall Wray. Their perspective is Keynesian, not market worship. They argue (as The Nation and others have) that the bailout is proceeding backward. Instead of saving Wall Street first, government should devote its heavy firepower to reviving jobs, incomes and business enterprises. The banks will not get well or begin normal lending until there is overall economic recovery.
The financial system, meanwhile, can be managed much as it was during the Depression, with regulators weeding out doomed banks and closing them, putting troubled banks under conservatorship and supervising healthy ones closely to prevent excesses. "If we are going to leave insolvent institutions open, it is critically important to replace or at least control management," the Levy paper explains. "Business as usual would be a disaster."
Under these conditions, the government can grant forbearance and prescribe business plans for a slower recovery of bank balance sheets. Instead of buying ruined assets from banks, the government can allow them to sit, possibly for several years, until the economy revives and mortgages or other debt paper regains value. This would amount to an "imposed purgatory" for major banks, keeping them from growing too fast with unsound ventures. Taxpayers will not get off the hook either; government will need to spend hundreds of billions to bail out bankrupt pension funds and pay off insured deposits at failed banks.
Economic stimulus requires preservative measures to stop the bleeding, like a moratorium on home foreclosures and federal lending to the auto industry, as well as force-feeding innovation. Like the financial sector, the reform imperatives must accompany any aid for troubled industries. Do not subsidize more bad behavior by corporate titans or assist companies shipping US jobs and production overseas. In Detroit's case, Washington better get it in writing--an enforceable contract to recover our money if the auto industry doesn't deliver.
President-elect Obama, of course, cannot act directly on any of these matters before January 20. But the Democratic Congress can, since the Treasury cannot spend any of the next $350 billion in the bailout fund without Congressional approval. Congress's first task is to cut off Paulson's water. Representative Dennis Kucinich, as usual, is out front demanding that Congress reject Paulson's request in advance. You can see why Wall Street hates these propositions. No more free money from Washington. No more "masters of the universe." You can also see why the people might be delighted.