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An Alternative to the Wall Street Bailout

The truth is the government's plan could very well cause the problem it purports to solve.

by
Arnold Kling

Bio

September 24, 2008 - 12:00 am
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I am concerned that the bailout might be the cause of the problem that it purports to solve.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson described the problem as follows:

The underlying weakness in our financial system today is the illiquid mortgage assets that have lost value as the housing correction has proceeded. These illiquid assets are choking off the flow of credit that is so vitally important to our economy. When the financial system works as it should, money and capital flow to and from households and businesses to pay for home loans, school loans and investments that create jobs. As illiquid mortgage assets block the system, the clogging of our financial markets has the potential to have significant effects on our financial system and our economy.

The heavy use of the plumbing metaphor almost makes one picture Paulson with his pants riding down a couple inches, leaning over a financial toilet bowl. It is clogged with unwanted securities backed by mortgages, supposedly because the sellers cannot find any buyers.

However, the market could be clogged because the prospects for a bailout are destroying the motivation to sell mortgage securities. If you sell this week and take a big loss, you will look pretty stupid if there is a bailout next week where comparable securities fetch much higher prices.

It could be that a Congressional rejection of the bailout proposal, rather than clogging the markets, will unclog them. If Congress goes home having sent financial institutions a clear signal that there will be no bailout of any kind, then sellers will bring their securities to market, and we will find out what the market thinks they are worth.

In the worst case scenario, the market will assign low values to the securities. Firms that are sufficiently capitalized to hold mortgage securities will earn profits at the expense of weaker companies that have to sell securities or go bankrupt. In the end, it may turn out that the winners really took advantage of the losers. That is capitalism at work in financial markets.

In order to absorb mortgage securities, healthy institutions may need to cut back on other lending, including new mortgage loans and loans to small businesses. That would hurt the economy.

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