The Polluters Must Pay

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It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the United States' financial system -- indeed, global finance -- is in a mess. The problems in the U.S. economy and financial system have been apparent for years. But that didn't prevent its leaders from turning to the same people who helped create the mess and who didn't see the problems until they brought us to the brink of another Great Depression to rescue us.

The $700 billion financial rescue plan signed by U.S. President George W. Bush on Friday may rescue Wall Street, but what about the economy? What about taxpayers, already beleaguered by unprecedented deficits and with bills still to pay for decaying infrastructure and two wars? In such circumstances, can any bailout plan work?

The basic approach of the rescue plan is critically flawed. First, it relies -- once again -- on trickle-down economics: Somehow, throwing enough money at Wall Street would cause it to trickle down to Main Street, helping ordinary workers and homeowners. Trickle-down economics almost never works, and it is no more likely to work this time.

Moreover, the plan assumed that the fundamental problem was one of confidence. That is no doubt part of the problem, but the underlying problem is that financial markets made some very bad loans. There was a housing bubble, and loans were made on the basis of inflated prices.

That bubble has burst. Real estate prices probably will fall further, so there will be more foreclosures, and no amount of talking up the market is going to change that. The bad loans, in turn, have created massive holes in banks' balance sheets, which have to be repaired. Any government bailout that pays fair value for these assets will do nothing to repair that hole. On the contrary, it would be like providing massive blood transfusions to a patient suffering from vast internal hemorrhaging.

The U.S. economy has been sustained by a consumption boom that was fueled by excessive borrowing, and that will be curtailed. States and localities are cutting back on expenditures. Household balance sheets are weaker. An economic slowdown will exacerbate all of the financial problems.

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The United States could do more with less money. The holes in financial institutions' balance sheets should be filled in a transparent way. The Scandinavian countries showed the way two decades ago. Warren Buffet showed another way in providing equity to Goldman Sachs. By issuing preferred shares with options, one reduces the public's downside risk and ensures that they participate in some of the upside potential.

This approach is not only proven, but it also provides both the incentives and wherewithal needed for lending to resume. It avoids the hopeless task of trying to value millions of complex mortgages and the even more complex financial products in which they are embedded, and it deals with the "lemons" problem -- the government gets stuck with the worst or most overpriced assets. Finally, it can be done far more quickly.

At the same time, several steps can be taken to reduce foreclosures. First, housing can be made more affordable for poor and middle-income Americans by converting the mortgage deduction into a cashable tax credit. The government effectively pays 50 percent of the mortgage interest and real estate taxes for upper-income Americans, yet does nothing for the poor. Second, bankruptcy reform is needed to allow homeowners to write down the value of their homes and stay in their houses. Third, the government could assume part of a mortgage, taking advantage of its lower borrowing costs.

By contrast, U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's approach is another example of the kind of shell games that got the United States into this mess. Investment banks and credit rating agencies believed in financial alchemy -- the notion that significant value could be created by slicing and dicing securities. The new view is that real value can be created by unslicing and undicing -- pulling these assets out of the financial system and turning them over to the government. But that requires overpaying for the assets, benefiting only the banks.

In the end, there is a high likelihood that if such a plan is ultimately adopted, U.S. taxpayers will be left on the hook. In environmental economics there is a basic principle called "the polluter pays." It is a matter of both equity and efficiency. Wall Street has polluted the economy with toxic mortgages. It should pay for the cleanup.

There is a growing consensus among economists that any bailout based on Paulson's plan won't work. If so, the huge increase in the national debt and the realization that even $700 billion is not enough to rescue the U.S. economy will erode confidence further and aggravate its weakness.

But it is impossible for politicians to do nothing in such a crisis. So we may have to pray that an agreement crafted with the toxic mix of special interests, misguided economics and right-wing ideologies that produced the crisis can somehow produce a rescue plan that works -- or whose failure doesn't do too much damage.

Getting things right -- including a new regulatory system that reduces the likelihood that such a crisis will recur -- is one of the many tasks to be left to the next U.S. administration.

Joseph E. Stiglitz, professor of economics at Columbia University and recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics, is co-author, with Linda Bilmes, of "The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Costs of the Iraq Conflict." © Project Syndicate