The Treasury and Henry Paulson also come in for a deserved spanking for their inept response to the crisis, which has been all over the map but has in the main handed hundreds of billions of dollars over to the very fools who got us in this trouble and made millions doing it.
In the middle of all this, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. persuaded Congress that he needed $700 billion to buy distressed assets from banks — telling the senators and representatives that if they didn’t give him the money the stock market would collapse. Once handed the money, he abandoned his promised strategy, and instead of buying assets at market prices, began to overpay for preferred stocks in the banks themselves. Which is to say that he essentially began giving away billions of dollars to Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and a few others unnaturally selected for survival. The stock market fell anyway.
It’s hard to know what Mr. Paulson was thinking as he never really had to explain himself, at least not in public. But the general idea appears to be that if you give the banks capital they will in turn use it to make loans in order to stimulate the economy. Never mind that if you want banks to make smart, prudent loans, you probably shouldn’t give money to bankers who sunk themselves by making a lot of stupid, imprudent ones. If you want banks to re-lend the money, you need to provide them not with preferred stock, which is essentially a loan, but with tangible common equity — so that they might write off their losses, resolve their troubled assets and then begin to make new loans, something they won’t be able to do until they’re confident in their own balance sheets. But as it happened, the banks took the taxpayer money and just sat on it.
The Times annoyingly splits up the piece into two separate stories online so everything from here on down comes from this link.
Lewis and Einhorn spell out clearly what ought to be done now:
THERE are other things the Treasury might do when a major financial firm assumed to be “too big to fail” comes knocking, asking for free money. Here’s one: Let it fail.
Not as chaotically as Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail. If a failing firm is deemed “too big” for that honor, then it should be explicitly nationalized, both to limit its effect on other firms and to protect the guts of the system. Its shareholders should be wiped out, and its management replaced. Its valuable parts should be sold off as functioning businesses to the highest bidders — perhaps to some bank that was not swept up in the credit bubble. The rest should be liquidated, in calm markets. Do this and, for everyone except the firms that invented the mess, the pain will likely subside.
The only thing preventing that is the vestigial free-market religion that somehow hasn’t been expunged yet—you know, the one that says we can’t tell insolvent banks that led us to ruin what to do, even though we’ve given them hundreds of billions of dollars to keep them afloat because they didn’t know how to run their businesses.
Lewis and Einhorn also recommend the regulation of credit-default swaps, a bailout for homeowners, new capital requirements for banks, and a waiting-period for SEC officials to leave for Wall Street. And my favorite of them all:
Another good solution to the too-big-to-fail problem is to break up any institution that becomes too big to fail.
Amen to that. Read the whole thing.