FRED WOLFERMAN: Shoes Drop: Deaths of Fannie and Freddie Are Not the End
At least we don't have to wait around for the other shoe to drop. They both fell quite resoundingly last week with the government takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
This move is something like winding up a bad round with a triple bogey. That's the good news. The alternative was a DQ.
If you think we can all breathe easy now that the feds are in charge, think again. Remember who got us here in the first place. It was the near-total lack of supervision by several administrations and many Congresses that allowed Fan and Fred to become the bloated, inadequately capitalized, abysmally managed behemoths they are.
It will take a lot more discipline on the part of new management and our elected representatives to clean up this mess than has been previously demonstrated.
"Clean up" is a relative term. Mort Zuckerman, publisher of U.S. News and The New York Daily News, and in a position to know a lot more about the inner workings of Washington than I, has estimated that this bailout will eventually cost taxpayers $200 billion to $500 billion.
Those are the same taxpayers whose home values first soared, and are now falling, thanks largely to the unsound lending practices encouraged in the first place by Fan and Fred. They get to pay twice for the same mistake. Their final cost will depend on how much those values eventually drop.
Still, given the situation, it's hopefully worth it. The takeover should help stabilize financial markets both domestically and internationally. The initial reaction was bullish for equities and bearish for bonds, as investors considered adding another possible half-trillion dollars to the national debt.
Then there were second thoughts. It will take longer than the deadline for this column to get a sense of how it will all unfold.
This is just the latest, and largest, in a growing series of government bailouts extending back at least to Lockheed in 1971. There followed Chrysler, Mexico, S&Ls, Bear Stearns, and others. The one glaring difference is that, in this case, the government itself created the need for it.
You may be sure that more hopeful seekers of federal largesse are even now lining up their lobbyists at congressional office doors. The big three automakers are at the head of the pack. Should taxpayers be required to continue cleaning up the mistakes of very highly paid corporate types for the benefit of investors who should have better understood the risk they were taking?
I would submit that, morally, the answer is a clear "No." Unfortunately, that is not the whole story. The economy really is dependent on the continued functioning -- or at least the gradual, not catastrophic, change -- of its major institutions. Drawing the line between who gets help and who doesn't requires some real political tightrope walking, and, unfortunately, the bias falls on the side of the bailout, because, after all, employees vote and money talks.
The process would be a lot more palatable if it did not simply amount to transferring the liabilities of one failing institution to another -- i.e., the federal government. Our national negative net worth does not change by a penny when these deals occur. We move around the line items only on the debit side of the ledger.
For this cost, we may achieve a degree of stability. The problem is, we don't seem to learn anything. Different people will do similar things the next time around, and we'll be back at square one. Part of the cause lies with capitalism itself, which is, after all, a system that promotes risk and reward, and can allow some extreme misallocations of each to occur before the inevitable correction.
But at least equally to blame is a government whose representatives' careers depend on handing out favors to those who yell loudest (contribute most) without adequate consideration or understanding of the consequences. They then attempt to correct their mistakes with even greater favors, all the while exhibiting a complete lack of fiscal competence or restraint.
It would be nice if this were really, really, the last time. It won't be. There is a tendency toward populism -- socialism if you prefer -- in any elective government, because, after all, that is where the votes are. The price of avoiding other forms of populism, such as the French or Russian revolutions, appears to be the accumulation of great deficits created by distributing benefits in order to keep voters pacified.
The still-unanswered questions are: How long can that go on? And what happens next?
Fred Wolferman lives in Southern Pines. Contact him by e-mail at email@example.com.
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