Not Buying It - The Current - Sent Using Google Toolbar

Not Buying It - The Current

Why Secretary Paulson's plan to bail out the financial industry needs a better explanation.

We are embarking on the most radical transformation of the American economy since the New Deal, committing hundreds of billions in taxpayer money to save banks and other financial institutions from the consequences of their own bad investments. This, we are told, is the cost of averting a crisis. But I sure wish someone would explain to me exactly what crisis we're trying to avert.

What's clear is that a bunch of financial institutions have made mistakes and lost money. What's unclear is why anyone (other than the owners and managers) should care. People make mistakes and lose money all the time. Restaurants fail, grocery stores fail, gas stations fail. People pick the wrong stocks, they buy the wrong cars, and they marry the wrong spouses without turning to the Treasury for bailouts.

So what's special about banks? According to what I keep reading, it's that without banks, nobody can borrow, and the economy grinds to a halt.

Well, let's think about that. Banks don't lend their own money; they lend other people's (their depositors' and their stockholders'). Just because the banks disappear doesn't mean the lenders will. Borrowers will still want to borrow and lenders will still want to lend. The only question is whether they'll be able to find each other.

That's one reason I feel squeamish about the official pronouncements we've been getting. They tell us bank failures will make it hard to borrow but never that bank failures will make it hard to lend. But every borrower is paired with a lender, so it's odd to state the problem so asymmetrically. This makes me suspect that the official pronouncers have not entirely thought this thing through.

In the 1930s, a wave of bank failures did make it hard for borrowers and lenders to find each other, and the consequences were drastic. But times have changed in at least two relevant ways. First, the disaster of the 1930s was caused not just by bank failures, but by a 30% contraction of the money supply, which is something today's Fed can easily prevent. Second, as any user of match.com can tell you, the technology for finding partners has improved since then. When a firm wants to raise capital, why can't it just sell bonds over the web? Or issue new stock? Or approach one of the hedge funds that seem to be swimming in cash? Or borrow abroad?

I know, I know, the rest of the world is in crisis too. But surely in the vast global economy, it should be possible to find someone capable of introducing a lender to a borrower. (Note that I'm not talking about going to foreign lenders, though that's another option. I'm just talking about the same American borrower and American lender who would have found each other through Bear Stearns finding each other through Barclays instead.)

In other words, I'm not sure these big Wall Street banks are really necessary, and I'm not sure we'd miss them much if they were gone. Maybe there's something I'm missing, but if so, I think it should be incumbent on Messrs. Bernanke, Paulson and above all Bush to explain what it is.

— Steven Landsburg