The story of the TARP bailout is the story of how the Federal Reserve bailed out the banks a week after the government had bailed out the banks’ shareholders.
The FED could have intervened a week earlier. It didn’t. It kept the biggest banks in business, so that their shareholders would avoid losing everything.
Let’s step back to where we were two years ago. The huge investment bank Bear Stearns had collapsed. So had Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage giants. Lehman Brothers, the fourth largest investment bank, had also gone down. AIG, the country’s largest insurer, had been put on life support by the government.
At this point, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs, the three remaining independent investment banks, all faced runs that would quickly sink them absent government intervention. Citigroup and Bank of America, two of the three largest commercial banks, were also almost certainly insolvent. Many other banks also faced insolvency, especially if they took big losses on their loans to other institutions that were about to go bankrupt.
This was when the Wall Street boys made their mad rush for the public trough. They enlisted everyone that mattered in the effort, including Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke, and Timothy Geithner, then the head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank.
The line was that the economy would collapse if Congress did not immediately rescue the banks. They were prepared to make up anything to save the banks in their hour of need. Bernanke was probably caught in the biggest fabrication when he told Congress that the commercial paper market was shutting down.
If true, this would have been disastrous, since most major companies rely on selling commercial paper to meet their payroll and other routine expenses. If this market shut down, it would mean that even healthy businesses could not pay their workers and suppliers, which would quickly cause the whole economy to grind to a halt.
Bernanke did not bother to inform Congress and the public that he had the ability to single-handedly support the commercial paper market. He waited until the weekend after Congress approved the TARP to announce that he would establish a special Fed lending facility to buy commercial paper.
In short, Bernanke wanted the taxpayers to foot the bill. He made sure he kept silent until the Congress had done what taxpayers overwhelmingly opposed: voted for TARP.
By the time of the Lehman crisis the financial markets had been severely stressed for over a year. The first major bank collapse had occurred more than 6 months earlier. It would have required a degree of unbelievable incompetence and/or irresponsibility for the Fed not to have devised a similar emergency plan to keep the systems of payments operating in a worst case scenario.
Furthermore, even if the Fed had been as incompetent as many claim, it would not have taken long for it to improvise a system whereby certain payments would be prioritized and the system of payments would again be up and running. The notion that we would be sitting in a 21st century economy and reduced to barter payments was an invention of the bank lobby to get the taxpayers’ money.
But didn’t all the money get paid back? By the big banks, yes.
Had it not been for the bailout, most of the major center banks would have been wiped out. This would have destroyed the fortunes of their shareholders, many of their creditors, and their top executives. This would have been a massive redistribution to the rest of society — their loss is our gain.
It is important to remember that the economy would be no less productive following the demise of these Wall Street giants. The only economic fact that would have been different is that the Wall Street crew would have lost claims to hundreds of billions of dollars of the economy’s output each year and trillions of dollars of wealth. That money would instead be available for the rest of society. The fact that they have lost the claim to wealth from their stock and bond holdings makes all the rest of us richer once the economy is again operating near normal levels of output.
Instead, we have the same Wall Street crew calling the shots, doing business pretty much as they always did. The rest of us are sitting here dealing with wreckage of their recklessness: 9.6 percent unemployment and the loss of much of the middle class’s savings in their homes and their retirement accounts. And the lackeys of the Wall Street crew are telling us that we should be thankful that we didn’t have a second Great Depression. Maybe we don’t have the power to keep the bankers from picking our pockets, but we don’t have to believe their lies.
If it happens again — and it will — Congress will hold the line. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Congress got suckered in full public view. The voters were right. The members were wrong. The members will not fall for this again.