The 3 AM call: financial crisis has that phone ringing

Marshall Auerback here.

This crisis is an audition for the presidency in real time — and an opportunity for a candidate to step up to the plate. If handled the right way, it could decide the election. If it is treated like another political issue, it could fade with the next news cycle.

So far, Obama is failing the test. Not as badly as McCain, but he’s not stepping up. He might be starting to now, but he should be talking to his big endorser, Paul Volcker right now.

Audition time is over. If Barack wants to win the election, he’s got to seize this issue right now. He can deal with the “experience” canard if he handles this right. Volcker endorsed him. Let’s see if that endorsement was sensible.

We are in the midst of the worst financial turmoil since the Great Depression. Absent bold action, matters could well get worse.

Neither the markets nor the ordinary diet of regulatory orders, bank examinations, rating downgrades and investigations can do the job. Extraordinary emergency actions by the Federal Reserve and the Treasury to date, while necessary, are also insufficient to resolve the crisis.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the giants in the mortgage market, are overextended and now under new government protection. They are not in sufficiently robust shape to meet all the market’s needs.

The fact is that the financial system needs basic, long-term reform, but right now the system is clogged with enormous amounts of toxic real-estate paper that will not repay according to its terms. This paper, in turn, is unable to support huge quantities of structured financial instruments, levered as much as 30 times.

Until there is a new mechanism in place to remove this decaying tissue from the system, the infection will spread, confidence will deteriorate further, and we will have to live through the mother of all credit contractions. This contraction will undercut the financial system, and with it, the broader economy that so far has held up reasonably well.

There is something we can do to resolve the problem. We should move decisively to create a new, temporary resolution mechanism. There are precedents — such as the Resolution Trust Corporation of the late 1980s and early 1990s, as well as the Home Owners Loan Corporation of the 1930s. This new governmental body would be able to buy up the troubled paper at fair market values, where possible keeping people in their homes and businesses operating. Like the RTC, this mechanism should have a limited life and be run by nonpartisan professional management.

Such a stabilizing mechanism would accomplish four much-needed tasks:

– First, by buying paper that otherwise is effectively not trading, it would help restore liquidity to the marketplace and help markets to function more fluidly again.

– Second, by warehousing the troubled paper for a longer period than, for instance, the Fed’s discount window typically should or could, it would allow for a more orderly liquidation of this paper, and the chance for much of it to recover a portion of its value.

– Third, by giving the agency the ability to manage mortgages with flexibility to keep people in their homes and businesses running, it should lessen the number of foreclosures. This, in turn, would help moderate the decline in real estate values and the deterioration of neighborhoods, thus supporting house prices that in fact lie at the heart of the crisis.

– Fourth, where necessary, like the RTC of the 1980s, this new mechanism can assist the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in resolving sick institutions that are so clogged with the troubled paper they cannot continue as independent entities. However, we would hope that purchasing the mortgage-related paper will minimize the need to provide emergency, short-term assistance to solvent banking institutions.

It is certainly the case that the new institution we are proposing will in the short run require serious money. That will involve a risk to the taxpayer; but the institution, administered by professionals, means that ultimate gains to the taxpayer are also possible.

Moreover, a failure to act boldly in the fashion we are suggesting would cost the taxpayer and the country far more. The pathology of this crisis is that unless you get ahead of it and deal with it from strength, it devours the weakest link in the chain and then moves on to devour the next weakest link. A deteriorating financial system, diminished economic activity, loss of jobs and loss of revenues to the government is enormously costly. And the cost to our citizens’ well-being is incalculable.

Crisis times require stern measures. America has done well in the past to face up to economic turmoil, take strong measures, and put our problems behind us. RTC-like mechanisms have worked well in past crises. Now is the time to take a similarly forceful step.

The American economy still has enormous underlying strengths. What we need, and in part are proposing, is a road map to financial stability.

Mr. Brady was U.S. Treasury secretary from 1988-1993. Mr. Ludwig was U.S. comptroller of the currency from 1993 to 1998. Mr. Volcker was chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1979-1987.

Resurrect the Resolution Trust Corp. – Nicholas F. Brady, Eugene, A, Ludwig, and Paul A. Volcker, WSJ

1 Comment
  1. Anonymous says

    Total BALONEY.

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