Friday, September 26, 2008

The Republican Market-Based Alternative

From the Curious Capitalist

Eric Cantor, the Republican chief deputy whip, has a more reasonable-sounding if still pretty vague plan to insure more mortgages rather than buy mortgage securities. Taxpayers already explicitly insure several hundred billion dollars worth of mortgages (it was $400 billion at the end of FY 2007, but I imagine it's a lot more by now) through the Federal Housing Administration, and have now also taken responsibility for the $5+ trillion in mortgages held or guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Add a couple trillion dollars of troubled private-label mortgages to that, and you don't have the big up-front expense or direct government involvement in the banking system that the Paulson plan calls for.

Cantor also seems to think Wall Street would pay the premiums on the insurance (with FHA-insured loans, homeowners pay the premiums).

I'm no expert in this, but my initial thought is that Cantor's plan wouldn't be a markedly better deal for taxpayers than Paulson's. As the insurer of all mortgages, the government would still be stuck with hundreds of billions in losses. That would be partially recouped by premiums, but not fully.

And this strikes me as significantly more complicated to administer than Paulson's bailout fund. As part of the July housing bill, the FHA is already supposed to start offering next week to guarantee up to $300 billion in renegotiated subprime mortgages, and I doubt it's really ready to do that yet.

A bit more on this from Bloomberg

Cantor said the House Republican proposal "does not leave the American taxpayers with the bag and makes sure that Wall Street pays for this recovery.''

Funnily enough, the Republican proposal (market-based, insurance set up) is eerily similar to the proposal by very-liberal James Galbraith in the Washington Post:

The point of the bailout is to buy assets that are illiquid but not worthless. But regular banks hold assets like that all the time. They're called "loans."

With banks, runs occur only when depositors panic, because they fear the loan book is bad. Deposit insurance takes care of that. So why not eliminate the pointless $100,000 cap on federal deposit insurance and go take inventory? If a bank is solvent, money market funds would flow in, eliminating the need to insure those separately. If it isn't, the FDIC has the bridge bank facility to take care of that.

Next, put half a trillion dollars into the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. fund -- a cosmetic gesture -- and as much money into that agency and the FBI as is needed or examiners, auditors and investigators. Keep $200 billion or more in reserve, so the Treasury can recapitalize banks by buying preferred shares if necessary -- as Warren Buffett did this week with Goldman Sachs. Review the situation in three months, when Congress comes back. Hedge funds should be left on their own. You can't save everyone, and those investors aren't poor.

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