Friday, March 21, 2008

Media Overlook Fed Bailout in Plain View

by Dean Baker

Can't the media find any economists who don't think that handing hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to the big banks and the incredibly rich people who own and manage them is a good idea? Apparently not, given the coverage so far to the Fed's proposal to lend $200 billion to the banks using mortgage backed securities as collateral.

The workings of the Fed and the financial markets can appear complicated, so let's simplify matters a bit to make it more clear what is going on here. Suppose that it was suddenly discovered that much of the wealth held by the country's leading financial institutions was in fact counterfeit. Instead of having hundreds of billions of dollars of real currency in their vaults, institutions like Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, and Bears Stearns actually had hundreds of billions of dollars of counterfeit currency. Suppose further that the public did not know exactly who held what in terms of counterfeit currency, only that all of them had a lot of it. (The point here is that these banks hold mortgage backed securities, many of which are only worth a fraction of their face value, and therefore can be viewed as the equivalent of counterfeit currency.)

In such circumstances, investors would be very reluctant to accept the credit of any of the major financial institutions. They couldn't know whether most of their assets were in fact counterfeit, and they were dealing with a bankrupt institution, or whether the counterfeit currency was only a limited share of the wealth, which would not jeopardize the institution's ability to meet its obligations.

This is in fact the credit squeeze that we've have recently witnessed. The spread between the interest rates on a wide variety of assets and the interest rate on safe assets (U.S. government debt) has soared. As a result, the Fed's effort to stimulate the economy, by lowering the federal funds rate, has been largely unsuccessful because other interest rates have remained high.

In response to this situation the Fed today announced that it would lend $200 billion to banks and other financial firms, accepting mortgage backed securities as collateral. This is effectively the same as saying that the Fed is going to lend money to banks and accept the counterfeit currency as collateral, treating it just as though it were real money.

The intended effect of this policy is to convince other investors that the counterfeit currency is in fact real currency, or at the very least that there is a really huge sucker out there (the Fed) which is prepared to treat the counterfeit currency as real currency.

So how does this story play out? Well, insofar as the Fed is successful, the counterfeit currency retains its value for a while longer. This allows Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, Bears Stearns and the rest of the big boys more time to dump their counterfeit currency on suckers who haven't figured out how the game is played.

It is possible that they won't be able to find enough suckers, in which case these banks will end up defaulting on their loans and the Fed (i.e. the government ) has lost tens or hundreds of billions dollars paying good money for counterfeit currency. Alternatively, perhaps the big boys are successful and can offload enough of their counterfeit money to restore themselves to solvency before the music stops. Then the Fed is repaid, but the counterfeit money now sits in the hands of other, less informed, or less inside, investors.

Either way, this is a policy of dubious merit. Why wouldn't we want the banks to be forced to come clean and eat their losses? This is always the policy that the economists advocate when the parties in question are not the big New York banks. Does anyone remember the East Asian financial crisis when the media was full of condemnations of crony capitalism and the IMF insisted imposed stringent conditions on South Korea, Thailand, and Indonesia as a condition of getting bailed out? At that time, everyone insisted on transparency. Aren't there any economists who still have this perspective? If so, why aren't their views appearing anywhere in the news?

There is one other issue that is extremely important that has been completely omitted from the media's discussion of the Fed's actions. There are people who have shorted the counterfeit notes (mortgage backed securities and related assets) because they recognized that these assets were in fact going to lose much of their value. While these short sellers were trying to make money, they were actually performing a valuable public service. They were pushing down the price of these assets towards their true level. If we had many such short sellers in the market we would not have seen the housing bubble grow to such dangerous proportions. The same holds true of the stock bubble.

However, if the Fed acts to sustain bubbles even after they have started to collapse under the pressure of their own weight, it makes it far more risky for short sellers. This means that even investors who realize that Citigroup has nothing but counterfeit currency will be reluctant to short its stock or other assets supported by counterfeit currency. As a result we can expect to see even bigger more dangerous bubbles in the future.

This is not a pretty story and there are economists who can make this point. The media should be talking to them, not just the cheerleaders for the housing bubble.

--Dean Baker

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