The Corner

Yes, But Will It Work?

Unfortunately, the debate over whether or not we are in a global financial crisis is over. Now, the big question — or one of them — is whether the Paulson plan will work.

 

Martin Feldstein in the WSJ on Saturday said “no”:

The financial rescue plan would bring back the confidence needed to revive the financial system only if the Treasury’s asset purchases could eliminate the current impaired securities now held by the financial institutions, and if the remaining securities could be counted on to remain healthy. The legislation will do neither.

Today in the Journal, Gary Becker seems to say “yes,” or at least offer modified support:

The main thrust of the new banking law allows the Treasury secretary to purchase bank assets up to $700 billion in order to increase the liquidity of the banking system. These assets are of uncertain worth since there is essentially no market for many of them, and hence they have no market price. The government hopes to create this market partly through using auctions, where banks would offer their assets at particular prices, and the government would decide whether to buy them. I would have preferred starting with a smaller dollar value of purchases, and up the amount if the situation deteriorates further….

 

Taxpayers may be stuck with hundreds of billions of dollars of losses from the various government insurance provisions and government purchases of assets. Although the media has made much of this possibility through headlines like “$700 Billion Bailout,” such large losses are highly unlikely except in the low probability event that the economy falls into a sustained major depression. Indeed, with efficient auctions, the government may well make money on its actions, just as the Resolution Trust Corporation that took over many savings-and-loan banks during the 1980s crisis did not lose much, if any, money. By buying assets when they are depressed and waiting out the crisis, the government may have a profit on these assets when they are finally sold back to the private sector. Making money does not mean the government involvement is wise, but the likely losses to taxpayers are being greatly exaggerated.

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