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Weekly Audit: Stop subsidizing Wall Street

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium MediaWire Blogger

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner rolled out his new Wall Street bailout plan on Monday and the progressive verdict is already in: This bailout doesn't look much better than the last one. In fact, Geithner's latest plan isn't much different from several other flawed proposals policymakers have floated over the past year. At its core, Geithner's program is just another attempt buy up "toxic assets" from banks at inflated prices.

If most major U.S. banks accepted current market prices for the bad, mortgage-related assets on their books, they would be insolvent. Geithner is trying to convince Wall Street that the assets are worth a lot more than everyone thinks they are, rather than deal with the fundamental problems of the assets and their owners. The plan unveiled on Monday involves a smorgasbord of guarantees for Wall Street investors, all part of an effort to sweeten the pot and convince them to buy toxic mortgage-related assets from troubled banks. Unfortunately, Geithner's revisions create new problems without solving key previous dilemmas inherent in the plan.

In a post for Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall highlights a clip of Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz rejecting a very similar plan in early February. Marshall asks "Why are we still at this?"

Under older formulations of the toxic asset purchase model, the government would have purchased the assets directly from banks. Since the assets are hard to value, this approach would have carried the risk that the Treasury would pay too much and provide banks with what amounts to a bailout (inflated price = free money + no strings attached). Geithner's new plan offers incentives that encourage hedge funds and private equity companies to buy toxic assets from banks. But the incentives do nothing to make sure the funds do not pay too much for those assets. Indeed, Geithner's plan actually encourages the private sector to pay too much. The troubled banks are still likely to be bailed out, thanks to a strong possibility that investors will pony up artificially high prices for their assets. The result is a set of economically irrational subsidies for both banks and Wall Street investment houses.

As Ezra Klein puts it for The American Prospect: "Imagine an art auction. Now imagine an art auction where Sotheby's loans money to the participants and promises to pay the losses if the paintings fall in value. Think the pricing will be the same? And who would you say is being protected: Sotheby's or the private investors?"

Still worse, all of those subsidies and guarantees for hedge funds mean that taxpayers are on the hook for much more than our private sector "partners," since buying up assets that nobody wants to buy is an intrinsically risky plan. In a sane investment world, taxpayers would benefit from a greater share of any gains from the investment. But the Geithner plan actually works the opposite way, as David Corn writes for Mother Jones: "The feds are shouldering much more of the risk burden than the private firms. Yet the feds would not get any greater split of the profits—if they ever materialize."

The government has intentionally created a gamble in which taxpayers bear the brunt of the blow for any losses, but allows Wall Street investors to enjoy a disproportionately large share of any gains. Subsidizing hedge funds and private equity firms serves no real economic function-- they do not make loans that help small businesses or consumers. If we are going to bail out troubled banks, we might as well control how our funds are spent and ensure that the mistakes that created this problem are not repeated: wipe out the shareholders who made bad bets on poorly run companies and kick out the management teams who drove those companies into the ground.

Everyone, of course, is still angry about those AIG bonuses. But excessive executive compensation is not only a problem for companies that have been bailed out, as David Moberg explains for In These Times. Outrageous CEO paychecks distort timelines for executives, encouraging them to take short-term risks at the expense of long-term profitability. This is bad not only for individual companies, but for the entire economy. The current financial crisis is a direct result of executives binging on risky securities to score big paydays without worrying about future damages to their companies' balance sheets.

It's also easy to forget that corporations are not merely wealth machines for their top executives—they are supposed to serve a useful economic function and fulfill actual social needs. Moberg argues persuasively that we need new rules for corporate accountability that align the interests of companies with the well-being of our society.

Over at Yes!, David Korten emphasizes the risk that important reforms on Wall Street will fall by the wayside if the government continues to focus on short-term emergency bailout plans instead of serious regulatory changes. It's past time for regulators to impose new rules on the game. The current financial crisis hit in the summer of 2007. Bear Stearns collapsed over a year ago. If the government had devoted more time to restructuring a broken financial system and less time orchestrating short-term bailouts, policymakers would have a much more effective set of tools to combat the crisis with. The most important lesson we have learned so far is that when a bank is considered too big to fail, it has become too big to exist. If lawmakers do not force over-sized financial behemoths to downsize, the entire economy will be jeopardized again when Wall Street's next speculative bubble bursts.

At present, however, Geithner seems content to simply blow another bubble with a new set of windfalls for Wall Street. If that sounds like a raw deal for taxpayers, that's because it is.

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