... and why we shouldn't just throw money at the problem.
When Bear Stearns hit bottom in March, the credit crisis claimed its first big Wall Street victim. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson said we had to bail out the bleeding financial giant at a cost to the taxpayers of $29 billion. Paulson said that would stabilize the markets. But it didn't.
Next, Paulson said we had to bail out mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The starting price was $200 billion. And that is on top of $300 billion passed by Congress only a month or so earlier in a massive housing bill. We were told that this would surely calm the markets. It didn't.
Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke then siphoned $85 billion from taxpayer coffers to save AIG from bankruptcy, again with the stated purpose of stabilizing the markets. Did it do the trick this time? No. Things appear to have only gotten worse.
More than $600 billion into these market-calming bailouts, market turmoil has continued. In fact, it has now grown to such a crescendo that we're told Congress must spend another $700 billion in taxpayer funds. We're told that we must do this now, without thorough deliberation, without answers to most questions.
This would bring the bailout tally to well over a trillion dollars -- approaching half the size of America's entire budget.
In other words: Every American who has played it safe and smart to avoid debt is being asked to spend the rest of his or her life paying off the debts of Washington and Wall Street. We are well on our way to privatizing profit but socializing risk. We're well on our way to eliminating moral hazard from economics altogether. This is antithetical not only to the free-market basis of our economy, but also to the rich heritage of liberty we've long enjoyed. It runs counter to the American Dream, unless you're a fat cat rolling the dice with taxpayer dollars.
American taxpayers are being asked to clean up a mess they didn't create. Congress must not rush to judgment on this matter. It is a complicated issue, and the consequences could threaten generations of prosperity. We must not just stick a trillion-dollar Band-Aid on the problem; we must examine the root causes and seek to address the core issues. Otherwise, it's only a matter of time until we find ourselves here again.
The recklessness of government is a primary culprit here. For years, Congress has been pushing banks to make risky, subprime loans. Using the authority of the Community Reinvestment Act, the big push for subprime mortgages began in earnest during the Clinton years. Banks that didn't play ball were subject to serious fines and lawsuits, and regulatory obstacles were placed in their way. While expanding access to the American Dream is a worthy goal, by blindly pursuing that goal and allowing the end to justify any means, we put millions of Americans at financial risk.
Because many of these home loans were backed by mammoth, government-sponsored enterprises -- Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- Wall Street was more than happy to trade on these egregious loans. The assumption -- which was proven right -- was that Uncle Sam would guarantee them. Fannie and Freddie quickly grew too big, and all calls to regulate them more closely or reform their structures were ignored.
In fact, leaders in Congress, such as Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the Financial Services committee, resisted reforming Fannie and Freddie at every turn. When former Treasury Secretary John Snow pleaded with Frank for Fannie and Freddie reform, Frank responded: "Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are not in a crisis ... I think we see entities that are fundamentally sound financially." But Snow was right.
Millions of homes and a mountain of wealth were built on a foundation of sand. When the housing bubble burst, it all began to collapse. Suddenly, the homeowners who took out loans they couldn't afford had homes worth less than when they bought them. And stalwart financial giants were left holding on to billions in securities that they couldn't cash -- what are called "illiquid assets" in today's headlines. Without liquidity, and the free flow of credit, the market grinds to a halt -- and companies buckle.
Endless government bailouts will not prevent this crisis from repeating itself. It will further cement the precedent that got us here in the first place. There are other options for bringing much-needed liquidity to the market, including infusing the market with new capital by suspending the business tax and the capital-gains tax.
Also, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac need to be dismantled. Now that the implicit taxpayer guarantee they enjoyed for years has been made explicit, we have to make a clean break.
Accounting that artificially devalued securities and other assets should be temporarily suspended. Before Congress jumps to a full trillion-dollar-plus bailout, it should explore these and other market reforms. Congress should look for the best way to provide the greatest stabilization in the markets with the least taxpayer exposure.
This isn't about Wall Street; this isn't about Washington. It's about the forgotten man -- the responsible American taxpayer. Who will be left to bail him out?
Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., serves on the Financial Services Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives.
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