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Soros: Paulson cannot be allowed a blank cheque
Mr Paulson’s record does not inspire the confidence necessary to give him discretion over $700bn. His actions last week brought on the crisis that makes rescue necessary. On Monday he allowed Lehman Brothers to fail and refused to make government funds available to save AIG. By Tuesday he had to reverse himself and provide an $85bn loan to AIG on punitive terms. The demise of Lehman disrupted the commercial paper market. A large money market fund “broke the buck” and investment banks that relied on the commercial paper market had difficulty financing their operations. By Thursday a run on money market funds was in full swing and we came as close to a meltdown as at any time since the 1930s. Mr Paulson reversed again and proposed a systemic rescue.
Mr Paulson had got a blank cheque from Congress once before. That was to deal with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. His solution landed the housing market in the worst of all worlds: their managements knew that if the blank cheques were filled out they would lose their jobs, so they retrenched and made mortgages more expensive and less available. Within a few weeks the market forced Mr Paulson’s hand and he had to take them over.
Mr Paulson’s proposal to purchase distressed mortgage-related securities poses a classic problem of asymmetric information. The securities are hard to value but the sellers know more about them than the buyer: in any auction process the Treasury would end up with the dregs. The proposal is also rife with latent conflict of interest issues. Unless the Treasury overpays for the securities, the scheme would not bring relief. But if the scheme is used to bail out insolvent banks, what will the taxpayers get in return?
Barack Obama has outlined four conditions that ought to be imposed: an upside for the taxpayers as well as a downside; a bipartisan board to oversee the process; help for the homeowners as well as the holders of the mortgages; and some limits on the compensation of those who benefit from taxpayers’ money. These are the right principles. They could be applied more effectively by capitalising the institutions that are burdened by distressed securities directly rather than by relieving them of the distressed securities.
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