By Joseph E. Stiglitz
The Nation, September 26, 2008
The champagne bottle corks were popping as Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson announced his trillion-dollar bailout for the banks, buying up their toxic mortgages. To a skeptic, Paulson’s proposal looks like another of those shell games that Wall Street has honed to a fine art. Wall Street has always made money by slicing, dicing and recombining risk. This “cure” is another one of these rearrangements: somehow, by stripping out the bad assets from the banks and paying fair market value for them, the value of the banks will soar.
There is, however, an alternative explanation for Wall Street’s celebration: the banks realized that they were about to get a free ride at taxpayers’ expense. No private firm was willing to buy these toxic mortgages at what the seller thought was a reasonable price; they finally had found a sucker who would take them off their hands–called the American taxpayer.
The administration attempts to assure us that they will protect the American people by insisting on buying the mortgages at the lowest price at auction. Evidently, Paulson didn’t learn the lessons of the information asymmetry that played such a large role in getting us into this mess. The banks will pass on their lousiest mortgages. Paulson may try to assure us that we will hire the best and brightest of Wall Street to make sure that this doesn’t happen. (Wall Street firms are already licking their lips at the prospect of a new source of revenues: fees from the US Treasury.) But even Wall Street’s best and brightest do not exactly have a credible record in asset valuation; if they had done better, we wouldn’t be where we are. And that assumes that they are really working for the American people, not their long-term employers in financial markets. Even if they do use some fancy mathematical model to value different mortgages, those in Wall Street have long made money by gaming against these models. We will then wind up not with the absolutely lousiest mortgages, but with those in which Treasury’s models most underpriced risk. Either way, we the taxpayers lose, and Wall Street gains.
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