The $700 Billion Bailout Plan’s Fine Print

A reformed Wall Streeter sifts through the details of the Troubled Asset Relief Program.


Treasury Sec. Hank Paulson’s $700 billion bailout plan now has a name: the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP. But even as Capitol Hill debates TARP, few seem to have noticed the proposal item that puts taxpayers on the hook for future bailouts. It’s in Section 6, and the key phrase is this: “The Secretary’s authority to purchase mortgage-related assets under this Act shall be limited to $700,000,000,000 outstanding at any one time.”

What does “at any one time” actually mean to economists? It means that if everything we American taxpayers buy re-evaluates down to zero, we get to buy more. That’s hardly taxpayer “protection.” With several hundred billion dollars of write-downs already announced this year by the part of the industry compelled to post their losses, it’s a safe bet that $700 billion worth of the junkiest assets in existence will be heading to zero the second they are purchased.

But that’s not all the bad news. With Sunday’s announcement that Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have decided to become bank holding companies, the last pretense of respect for the Glass-Steagall was dropped.

The Bank Holding Company Act of 1956 prevented bank holding companies from engaging in non-consumer oriented banking activities, like investment banking. It also prohibited such entities headquartered in one state from acquiring banks in another state. The interstate restrictions were gutted in 1994, and the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act took care of the rest.

At first this meant that commercial banks could buy investment banks and insurance companies, hence Citigroup (which is a combination of Citibank, Travelers Insurance and Salomon Brothers investment bank), and the latest incarnation waiting to post lots of losses, Bank of America-Merrill Lynch. But even with a new name, Goldman Sachs is still an investment bank, in the same way that a horse by another color is still a horse. Changing its status to bank holding company will mean access to the bailout fund, and give it the ability to buy any commercial bank out there. Which it likely will.

Nonetheless, that looming problem wasn’t addressed by Congress Tuesday. Instead, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) responded to TARP with THOR (Taxpayer Protection, Housing, Oversight and Regulation) and warned, “the financial system is clogged, and if we don’t react the patient will suffer a heart attack. So we must act and must act soon…”

Somewhere, Former Treasury Secretary Carter Glass, the co-author of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 that separated speculative investment banks from consumer-oriented commercial ones, is turning in his grave.

As much press as the TARP vs. THOR discussion is getting, one voice of reason deserves more attention: Sen. Byron Dorgan’s. As he has said, “this proposal looks to me like a stampede in the wrong direction…to reward the very people on Wall Street who created this mess, and who pocketed more than $100 billion over the last several years making it.”

In 1999, Dorgan had the foresight to vote against the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act that repealed the financial protections put in place following the Great Depression. He warned then that a ‘financial swamp’ would result from “the casino-like prospect of merging banking with the speculative activity of real estate and securities, and that the bill will raise the likelihood of future massive taxpayer bailouts.”

Dorgan was spot on. Not only are we trapped in the complex deregulated financial system that resulted, but the bailouts are just beginning.

In advocating new protections similar to the Glass-Steagall Act and the need to address this crisis not just quickly, but correctly, he’s likely spot on again. If only the rest of Congress felt the same way.

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