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Home Articles US Mulls Crisis

U.S. Mulls Next Steps in Crisis

March 18, 2008
The Wall Street Journal

Michael M. Phillips and Sarah Lueck in Washington, D.C., and Sebastian Moffett in Tokyo contributed to this article.

As jittery investors digested Washington's dramatic steps Sunday to broker a bailout of Bear Stearns Cos. and offer emergency credit to Wall Street firms, the possible outlines of a broader response to the U.S. financial crisis began taking shape.

The result is likely to be a heavier hand of government in the form of corporate bailouts, fiscal incentives and regulation.

In the wake of the Bear Stearns deal, fears persisted that the credit-market woes might damage the broader U.S. economy. Overseas markets sold off sharply prior to the start of the U.S. trading session. The dollar also faltered badly, at one point hitting its lowest level against the yen since August 1995. In the financial sector, National City plummeted 43% on reports it was having a hard time finding a buyer. Lehman Brothers dropped 19%.

Today, the Federal Reserve is expected to further cut the federal-funds rate, charged on overnight loans between banks, by between a half percentage point and a full point. The Fed hopes that cheaper credit will stimulate business activity and aid strapped financial institutions. But it may not cut as much as some on Wall Street expect, given continued inflation concerns.

Much of the emergency action taken so far, including Sunday's decision to extend central-bank loans to Wall Street brokerage firms, has been driven by the Fed. That possibly insulates Congress and the White House from steps that eventually could be costly to taxpayers, although at present the Fed considers that unlikely.

The Bush administration is mulling additional fixes to America's wounded housing-finance sector, where the crisis erupted last summer. One step the White House is actively considering involves reducing constraints on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, government-chartered companies that play a huge role in financing mortgages. The two companies have been operating under elevated capital requirements for the past few years because they were caught up in accounting scandals. Under the plan, those requirements would be eased so the companies would have more money to buy mortgages from banks desperate for liquidity.

Another proposed Bush administration regulatory change involves the Federal Housing Administration. The FHA, which insures mortgages, is developing a plan to allow more distressed homeowners to qualify for government-backed loans. That's important because many borrowers are having a hard time refinancing amid lender worry about potential losses. Government insurance may give lenders more confidence to refinance financially troubled borrowers.

Bipartisan Goal

The swiftness and virulence of the financial problems have been stunning. The problems are rooted in a bipartisan goal to figure out ways for lower-income Americans to buy homes, so that they could build financial wealth and plant deep stakes in their neighborhoods. But the instruments that mortgage companies devised included provisions -- interest resets after five years, no down payments -- that buyers didn't fully appreciate could backfire. When those subprime mortgages were bundled into packages of debt and sold to a daisy chain of interlocked financial institutions, the risks of those provisions eluded investors considered far more sophisticated than first-time home buyers.

Essentially, the risks were hidden from view -- "a lack of transparency," financial types call it. The irony is that the U.S. and the International Monetary Fund have been lecturing developing countries since at least the 1980s of that very danger. If economic risks aren't transparent to investors, they're likely to blow up, and can drag down an economy. That's happened repeatedly in Latin America and in the late 1990s in Asia and Russia.

Now the U.S. is wrestling with questions that have long dogged other nations. Who should be bailed out? Who bears the cost? What is the role for the central bank? How should markets be regulated to avoid a repeat of the problems?

Parties at Loggerheads

With the Republican administration and Democratic Congress often at loggerheads over how much to intervene, it is the unelected technocrats running the Federal Reserve who are taking the lead. In a series of escalating moves since last August, the Fed has been ever more aggressive in its willingness to take risky debt onto its balance sheet in order to thaw frozen credit markets.

The Fed's decision to lend Bear Stearns temporary funding last Friday and now to take over $30 billion of its least-liquid securities crossed a critical threshold by actually propping up a specific firm. Doing so went against decades of Fed efforts to avoid measures that favor a particular company or market.

Chairman Ben Bernanke has also been faster than the Bush administration to embrace a bigger role for the federal government in resolving the crisis. A few weeks ago, he argued that the FHA should be allowed to guarantee more delinquent mortgages as a carrot to private lenders to write down the value of those mortgages without foreclosing on the homeowners.

Mr. Bernanke, a Republican, isn't ideological. From his long studies of the Great Depression he concluded that event could have been prevented had the Fed shown more leadership. And he credits the Depression's end to the creativity of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 2000, he advised Japanese policy makers struggling with that country's long malaise to emulate FDR.

"Many of his policies did not work as intended but in the end FDR deserves great credit for having the courage to abandon failed paradigms and to do what needed to be done," he wrote.

Indeed, the goal of U.S. policy makers is to avoid the malaise that gripped Japan for a decade after its banks accumulated vast sums of bad debt following the burst of a late-1980s bubble in real estate. When land prices collapsed, so did the value of the real-estate collateral that backed most loans, leaving many borrowers unable to repay and saddling Japanese lenders with trillions of yen in bad loans.

Financial authorities waited years for the bad loans to fade away without government action. But the problem only started to lift after the government, starting around 1998, began injecting huge amounts of public funds in the hobbled banks. It took until around 2005 for the banks to clear up the worst of their bad loans and for the first time in nearly a decade report rises in their loans outstanding.

The U.S. turmoil so far doesn't look nearly as intractable as Japan's, and so far President Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson have emphasized voluntary industry efforts to renegotiate troubled loans, along with a limited expansion of federal housing finance programs. Although Messrs. Bush and Paulson say they're open to other ideas, they have also made clear that they haven't yet heard a plan that they think would work to address the wave of home foreclosures now sweeping the nation, and the financial turmoil that the housing problems have spawned.

"One thing is for certain -- we're in challenging times," said President Bush yesterday after meeting with his economic advisers. "But another thing is for certain -- that we've taken strong and decisive action."

The Bear Stearns effort represents a form of bailout. If the Fed loses money on the loan, it will reduce the income it remits to the Treasury. Ted Truman, a former Federal Reserve official, says the swap amounts to government financing because it is likely to reduce the profits the Fed makes. In 2007, The Fed distributed $34.4 billion to the Treasury. "Ultimately, the Federal Reserve's losses are the taxpayers' losses," Mr. Truman says.

Pressure for More Loans

Apart from the financial risk, the Fed may be called on to make other, similar loans in the future, forcing it to make politically loaded judgments about who deserves its help.

Joseph Mason, an economist at Drexel University, says Fed loans to weak banks in the 1930s and 1980s merely kept them alive long enough for their problems to get bigger. Regulators, he says, always hope they can limit their help with loans, but "if you're insolvent, you have more liabilities than assets, so giving you more liabilities is not going to help that fundamental problem of insolvency."

The Same Issues

The U.S. will face the same issues that Asian nations faced in the crisis of 1997-98. Is it better to nationalize financial firms outright, or inject bonds that provide the funding to carry on, so long as the recipients agree to repay the bonds with future profits?

Glenn Hubbard, a former Bush White House chief economist who is now dean of the Columbia University's business school, says regulators should pay more attention to financial sector liquidity than they have in the past. But he's fearful that detailed regulation of specific financial instruments could backfire. The system is so complicated, he says, that it's hard to know what the consequences will be. Inadvertently, regulators could "diminish risk-taking among prudent investors and increase risk-taking by the clever."

Stricter Oversight

Barry Eichengreen, an economic historian at the University of California at Berkeley, says that institutions bailed out by the government can expect stricter government oversight. That includes investment-banking firms, now that they are able to borrow from the Fed, and could include hedge funds and private-equity firms if they get government bailouts. "If we're going to use public money to prevent the finance system from collapsing," he says, "the quid pro quo is more oversight during normal times."

On Capitol Hill and within the Treasury, the crisis has spawned a series of proposals, some of which involved billions of dollars in federal spending. While none has won the backing of the White House, that may well change as the pressure to aid the economy mounts, especially in an election year. "Given an economy in recession and a financial system on the edge of a meltdown, they have no choice but to get more aggressive in their thinking about the housing and mortgage market," economist Mark Zandi said of Messrs. Paulson and Bush. Mr. Zandi is chief economist of Moody's/ and advises the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, on economic issues.

The most attention has focused on federal backing for troubled mortgages. House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D., Mass.) has proposed allowing the FHA to insure up to $300 billion in mortgages so that at-risk borrowers could refinance into more affordable loans. Lenders would have to substantially reduce the principal outstanding in order to qualify for FHA backing.

Other Possibilities

Other possibilities include increasing tax-exempt bond authority, changing bankruptcy laws, reducing principal balances for underwater loans or issuing so-called "negative equity certificates." Under the latter, Treasury's Office of Thrift Supervision proposed that banks reduce mortgage balances to help homeowners hang onto their houses, but receive in exchange certificates that would give them rights to any windfall profits should the house value rise again. Mr. Paulson hasn't indicated that he would support the plan.

Chances have also increased of a second stimulus package, on top of this year's $152 billion plan, which would pay up to $1,200 for married couples, with an additional $300 per child. House Democrats are discussing reviving proposals that dropped out of earlier stimulus legislation, including an extension of unemployment benefits and aid to states. The House and Senate are on recess for two weeks, but are expected to take up housing legislation when they return.

"This regimen of total deregulation has essentially allowed the economy to be held hostage to some financially irresponsible actions," says Rep. Frank. "There is no choice but to pay some ransom."

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