US treasury secretary Henry Paulson is asking for $700 billion (Rs31.8 trillion) of taxpayers’ money to spend “fixing” the financial system, with little accountability. He has presented Congress with a brief outline of the proposed legislation authorizing him to spend the funds buying mortgage-related debt from troubled financial institutions to stabilize the financial system. Government action may be merited. But as posed, Paulson’s plan looks like the 2001 Patriot Act—which expanded the authority of US law enforcement agencies to combat terrorism—for Wall Street. Here are some of the questions Congress should ask before endowing the treasury with the kind of unchecked powers it gave the White House after 9/11:
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1. Where does the $700 billion figure come from? It makes a nice round trillion dollars or so when combined with $200 billion for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, $85 billion for American International Group Inc. and $29 billion for Bear Stearns Companies Inc. Other than that, what is the evidence this is the right amount of money to stabilize the situation?
2. Who will watch out for taxpayers’ interests? Paulson is asking for almost complete discretion to buy any mortgage-related assets at any price, monitored only by semi-annual reports to Congress—and for a provision in the legislation that prevents review by any government agency or court. He is smart, but he is a political appointee, and his huge wealth puts a gulf between him and the average taxpayer.
3. If the US treasury is to buy troubled assets from banks that are still in business, how will it set prices? The treasury is talking about employing market mechanisms. But if the prices come out too high, average US taxpayers would find themselves bailing out some of their richest fellow citizens—namely bank executives and their shareholders. Too low, and the hits banks would have to take could put them out of business—exactly what Paulson seems to want to avoid.
4. What about quid pro quos from the institutions concerned? Banks are only going to sell assets to the treasury if it is the best deal they can get. Imposing limitations on risk-taking, leverage ratios, executive compensation, insider sales and other such matters at institutions that are helped out with taxpayers’ money should be required.
5. How will asset managers be chosen and paid? It wouldn’t look good if some of the same firms that needed bailing out were then paid handsome fees to manage their own former toxic waste. Will they be excluded, and will any and all asset managers be selected competitively?
6. How will it be paid for? It is the kind of question Congress hasn’t asked itself since before the Patriot Act. But with US annual deficits in danger of heading towards 13 figures, lawmakers should first be asking Paulson to quantify how much of what he called an “investment of taxpayer dollars” he expects to get back. Then, they should ask themselves where the rest will come from. Raising the official US government debt ceiling to $11.3 trillion will, one day, call for savings elsewhere.
7. What should the plan be called? In the tradition of naming laws in contradiction of their purpose, “the Free Markets and Capitalism Act” might be appropriate. Or, for the sceptics, in honour of the rating firms whose faulty “investment grade” tags helped cause the problem, how about “the Triple-B-Minus, for Bankers’ Benefit Bill—minus accountability”?