This weekend, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, former head of the Goldman Sachs investment house, provided us with a perfect demonstration of Wall Street socialism.
He announced that the Bush administration would seek congressional approval to bail out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government created but privately owned, profit-making housing finance companies that hold or guarantee nearly half of the U.S. mortgage market—some $5 trillion in debt. Paulson seeks and will get an unlimited line of credit to guarantee their debt, as well as authority to purchase their shares to supplement their capital base. The Federal Reserve announced it was ready to provide lending while waiting for Congress to act. Paulson said the new subsidies were designed to sustain the two institutions in “their current form.”
Perfect. The two institutions have always been more fowl than fish. Created by the government in the 1930s to help lubricate the U.S. mortgage market by buying mortgages from the banks so they would have the cash to make more mortgages, Fannie and Freddie were able to borrow money at a discount because of a widely shared assumption that the government would stand behind their debts if push came to shove. Their operations were regulated, limited by laws detailing what mortgages they could assume. (They were essentially prohibited from diving directly into the subprime muck.)
But as they grew and profited, their executives pocketed lavish salaries and bonuses—giving them an incentive to grow even more (and as we discovered earlier this decade, to cook the books). Last year, for example, the Chair of Freddie Mac took home a cool $18,289,575. Fannie Mae CEO Daniel Mudd reaped a 7 percent rise in pay to $13.4 million in 2007 while the company lost $2.1 billion and its shares fell 33 percent. Nice work if you can get it.
Now with the bursting of the housing bubble, push surely has come to shove. Foreclosures are soaring, the two institutions have sustained billions in losses, their shares have plummeted, and, according to former St. Louis Federal Reserve President William Poole, one and possibly both would be bankrupt if their assets were marked down to their current market value.
So now the Bush administration proposes to make the federal guarantee explicit and even to offer taxpayer money to help recapitalize the two banks if needed. Everything has been nationalized—except the profits and the pay scales of the bank’s executives.
That’s right. If the guarantees work, private speculators, having driven the stock down, will clean up on the upside. And the bank’s CEOs will continue to pocket the multimillion dollar salaries that are de rigueur on Wall Street. Call it Wall Street socialism. Their losses are socialized; their profits are pocketed. You and I will pay for their failures. And if conservatives have their way, their families will pocket their successes, without even having to pay a tax for the transfer of the estates we’ve helped to create.
These enterprises are operating on our tab now—completely. Why not just nationalize them, as even that font of economic convention, Sabastian Mallaby suggested yesterday in The Washington Post? Sure, we’d have to add the $5 trillion in debt to the federal balance sheet, but we could add the assets also. And after Paulson’s announcement, global investors are already toting up their debts onto the federal balance sheet.
Why pay dividends to shareholders when they are essentially playing with our money? Why pay managers of public enterprises the bloated pay packages of Wall Street speculators? Why allow them to finance lobbyists to shield them from accountability? The fiction of their separate existence has been exploded; let’s save the dough and run them efficiently.
The bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is only the most recent and extreme version of Wall Street socialism. The Bush administration has done essentially the same for private providers of college loans. The Federal Reserve has made taxpayers the guarantor not simply of the banks that it regulates, but the shadow banking system of hedge funds and investment houses that it doesn’t regulate. After the bailout of Bear Sterns, they basically are gambling with our money. The Federal Reserve has now traded more than $500 billion in federal bonds for the toxic paper of private banks and investment houses, some $200 billion of it in mortgage-backed securities, worth dimes on the dollar. This massive subsidy—justified as necessary to keep the banking system afloat—is not accompanied by limits on what gambles the speculators can make, how much debt they can take on, what rewards they can pocket. They are playing with house money—not exactly an incentive for prudence.
Republicans seem ideologically committed to these kinds of arrangements. In Medicare for example, conservatives have demanded that the government subsidize private insurance companies to compete with public Medicare, even though Medicare provides health care much less expensively. When Bush and the Tom DeLay Congress drove through the prescription drug bill, they included a provision that prohibits Medicare from negotiating cheaper prices for drugs, effectively turning the bill from a benefit to seniors to a multibillion-dollar subsidy to private drug companies (not surprisingly, after Wall Street, the drug companies finance one of the most lavish and powerful lobbies in Washington).
Now it makes sense to me for the government to subsidize housing mortgages and college loans. Encouraging home ownership and higher education are central to sustaining the broad middle class that is America’s triumph. But I can’t imagine why we need to let bankers and investors pocket the upside, when they are playing with our money and we’re covering their losses. Public enterprise may be staid and bureaucratic, but it’s a lot cheaper and more efficient than the perils of Wall Street socialism.