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Is The Rescue Plan Confusing On Purpose?

We asked Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, to assess Tim Geithner's rescue plan for the financial sector today. (Noam Scheiber already weighed in for us here.) What follows is a condensed version of our conversation.

There are still an awful lot of details that we don't know, but I just can't help thinking that this is kind of a Rube Goldberg game to make it difficult to see what's going on. The basic story is that we know we have bankrupt banks, and rather than just take them over, it seems we're shuffling a lot of assets around and guaranteeing others. It seems like a very indirect way to deal with the problem, and one that ends up rewarding bank executives and shareholders.

I would've done an S&L type deal where you say, "We're going to audit your books," which gives them a really big incentive to be honest. Because you could then create a situation in which you nail the shareholders and maybe nail the bondholders, or even have it so that executives will face personal liability, if not criminal liability, for not coming clean on all their bad debts. And once you get a good view of the books, you could determine who's solvent and who isn't. The banks that are solvent, that's fine, they'll go on. The ones that might need a little money, you work out loans; some concessions will get paid back. And for the ones that are hopelessly insolvent, we take them over, put their bad assets in a bad bank like we did for the Resolution Trust Corporation, and then reorganize them and sell them back to the private sector.

It would just be nice to know what Geithner's proposals will look like in practice. As it stands now, he's thrown a lot of things out there. He's talking about having these arrangements where they'll partner with equity funds and hedge funds to buy bad assets. But one of the things that strikes me there, of course, is that these are unregulated. Are we going to regulate them, or are we just going to give them subsidies and have them go unregulated? Another major thing that we don't know is how he's going to have money to deal with housing. We just don't know what that program looks like.

All of which begs the question: What was the rush? I don't really understand why Obama felt he needed to push forward with this at a time when he's working on the stimulus. The stimulus still is far and away front and center. We have a crippled financial system, but if I want to go get a mortgage, I could. People who have good credit can go and get a mortgage, or a credit card, or a limited amount of capital for a small business. Cisco Systems just issued a big bond issue today. So it's a crippled financial system, but it's functioning. Whereas if we don't get a big stimulus package, this economy is just going to free fall. We're losing 600,000 jobs a month, and I don't know how long that will continue.

--As told to Amanda Silverman