Published on Sunday, September 21, 2008 by The Politico
'Taxpayer Ripoff': Many Economists Skeptical of Bailout
by Avi Zenilman
Many of the same economists and opinion-makers who'd provided a bipartisan sheen of consensus to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson 's previous moves have quickly begun casting doubts on the wisdom of a policy that would allow Treasury to purchase without oversight hundreds of billions of dollars of difficult-to-price assets from financial institutions.
Under the proposal, Paulson would not have to report to Congress until December, and the only safeguard for taxpayers was a provision that the “Secretary shall take into consideration means for — (1) providing stability or preventing disruption to the financial markets or banking system; and (2) protecting the taxpayer.”
Skepticism toward the plan reflected more than the predictable desires of the left to spread the wealth to Main Street or of the right to reject government bailouts, although those sentiments were also expressed.
"We need to take a bold move. In that sense I think Paulson is right," Luigi Zingales, a Professor at the University of Chicago School of Business who wrote a widely circulated short essay titled "Why Paulson is Wrong,”  told Politico .
Zingales fears that the Treasury bailout would effectively turn the entire financial sector into a Government Sponsored Enterprise, complete with the same murkiness and moral hazard that sunk Fannie Mae  and Freddie Mac . “It might achieve the final outcome, but it will do so at an enormous cost," he said. "All the troubles we’ve seen with Fannie and Freddie would be seen again and again across the entire financial sector."
President Bush  is “asking for a huge amount of power,” said Nouriel Roubini, an economist at New York University  who was among the first to predict the crisis. “He's saying, ‘Trust me, I'm going to do it right if you give me absolute control.' This is not a monarchy.” (Roubini told  the New York Times  that despite these concerns, he also thought the plan could help stave off a recession.)
Paul Krugman, the Princeton University economist and liberal columnist for The New York Times who had until now been cautiously supportive of Paulson's and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke ’s efforts to prop up the system, wrote that the new plan would be a taxpayer rip-off. “I hate to say this, but looking at the plan as leaked, I have to say no deal,” he wrote on his blog at 4:46 p.m.  Saturday. “Not unless Treasury explains, very clearly, why this is supposed to work, other than through having taxpayers pay premium prices for lousy assets.”
Yves Smith, a longtime banker and contributor to the influential finance blog Naked Capitalism, published an angry post there titled, "Why You Should Hate The Treasury Bailout Proposal" :
"Given that continuing to buy U.S.  assets will come under increasingly harsh scrutiny overseas, the U.S. needs to bend over backwards to devise a plan that at least looks credible in terms of directing the funds that come from taxpayers and lenders to their highest and best uses and implementing reforms that will restore active and prudent oversight of financial firms," she wrote. "The administration's demand for a free pass, even if Congress unwisely goes along, is likely to backfire with our foreign creditors."
Gregory Mankiw, a professor at Harvard University  and a former chairman of Bush's Council of Economic Advisers who was the economic guru for Mitt Romney 's campaign, favorably linked to Smith's post under the headline "A Blank Check"  and approvingly quoted a correspondent who wrote, "Has more money ever been given with fewer restrictions on how it is used? Ever?"
Sebastian Mallaby, the center-right economic columnist for The Washington Post  and scholar of the modern financial system, was equally dubious . “The plan is being marketed under false pretenses," he wrote in his Sunday column, rejecting comparisons of the plan to the Resolution Trust Corporation , which the government formed in response to the savings and loan crisis to purchase and sell off the bad loans made by bankrupted thrifts.
“The administration proposes to buy up bad loans before the lenders go bust,” Mallaby noted, keeping the banks alive but doing little to solve the problem infecting the markets. “Bad loans are weighing down the financial system precisely because private-sector experts can't determine their worth. The government would have no better handle on the problem.”
Justin Fox, Time magazine 's top financial writer and columnist, also worried about the lack of an upside for the taxpayer. "What I still can't figure out is how Treasury hopes to structure the bailout so there's at least a chance of getting a fair return on that risk-taking," he wrote  on his blog.
"How on earth will these things be priced?" Portfolio's Felix Salmon asked  about the bad debt Paulson plans to purchase. He also pointed out that Treasury would need to stock its office with bond-trading professionals. "All we know so far is that it's going to be set up as a reverse auction, but that raises more questions than it answers."
One notable proponent of the plan was The Financial Times' unsigned Lex column , which acknowledged the lack of oversight but mostly praised the plan:
"This bailout is necessary and the bill should be pushed through quickly. … Nor is the package necessarily a disaster for the taxpayer or the U.S. dollar. If the Treasury buys assets well, and confidence is restored, there is [a] chance that Mr. Paulson could win fund manager of the year."
Zingales, though, writes in "Why Paulson Is Wrong" that "For somebody like me who believes strongly in the free market system, the most serious risk of the current situation is that the interest of a few financiers will undermine the fundamental workings of the capitalist system. The time has come to save capitalism from the capitalists."
URL to article: http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2008/09/21-4