Why some firms are bailed out and others ignored
Those sinking in the wake of the real estate plunge get different treatment. For the overall economy, it makes sense.
Home prices in the United States are down about 18 percent. Some predict the eventual price decline will reach 30 percent. Since the total value of houses was approximately $20 trillion, the loss in underlying value could reach $6 trillion if the gloomy forecasts prove correct.Skip to next paragraph
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Of course, the actual loss will probably be far less than that $6 trillion. But it will be huge – maybe $1 trillion, speculates L. Randall Wray, a senior scholar at the Levy Economic Institute in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.
That hints at the order of magnitude of the potential losses facing Washington with the latest plan for creation of some sort of federal authority to buy troubled mortgages and mortgage-backed securities. Such losses would far exceed the losses of the Resolution Trust Corp., created to clean up the savings-and-loan crisis of the 1980s.
The earlier emergency negotiations in New York hung in part on the issue of who takes the present losses. Is it Uncle Sam? Or should shareholders of troubled firms suffer the losses through bankruptcy – or perhaps sale of bad assets to a new rescue agency at sharp losses? These shareholders, by the way, include pension funds and mutual funds relevant to millions of people.
"The problem is that this financial crisis is spreading through nearly every kind of financial liability – and it is not going to stop," warns Mr. Wray.
So far, the Washington team of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke have demonstrated considerable pragmatism in their actions, largely ignoring libertarian free-market ideology that government should let the chips fall where they may and thereby investors learn their lessons on risk.
Bear Stearns Cos. got a merger deal last March, a step then considered vital to Wall Street stability. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were taken over by the government earlier this month since they are so important to the nation's housing market. Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail last week. Its bankruptcy was not considered a threat to the entire financial system.
And last Tuesday, Washington seized control of American International Group Inc. through a bailout loan of up to $85 billion, giving it in effect a 79.9 percent equity stake in the giant insurance company. It was considered too big and financially important to be allowed to fail. AIG's business included the sale of credit-default swaps, complex financial contracts that allow buyers to insure investments tied to mortgages – the paper hit by declining home prices and shady dealings in many cases.