The misguided policy response from Washington has focused almost exclusively on squandering public money and burdening our children with indebtedness in order to defend the bondholders of mismanaged financial institutions (blame Paulson and Geithner ”“ I’ve got a lot of respect for our President, but he’s been sold a load of garbage by banking insiders). Meanwhile, I suspect that the little tapes in Bernanke’s head playing “we let the banks fail in the Great Depression” and “we let Lehman fail and look what happened” are so loud that he is making no distinction about the form of those failures. Simply letting an institution unravel is quite different from taking receivership, protecting the customers, keeping the institution intact, replacing management, properly taking the losses out of stockholder and bondholder capital, and issuing it back into private ownership at a later date. This is what it would mean for these banks to “fail.” Nobody is advocating an uncontrolled unraveling of major financial institutions or permanent nationalization as if we’ve suddenly become Venezuela.
Make no mistake. Buying up “troubled assets” will not materially ease this crisis, nor will it even improve the capital position of financial institutions (see You Can’t Rescue the Financial System if You Can’t Read a Balance Sheet). Homeowners will continue to default because their payment obligations have not been restructured to any meaningful extent. We are simply protecting the bondholders of mismanaged financial institutions, even though that bondholder capital is more than sufficient to cover the losses without harm to customers. Institutions that cannot survive without continual provision of public funds should be taken into receivership, their assets should be restructured to better ensure repayment, their stockholders should be wiped out, bondholders should take a major haircut, customer assets should (and will) be fully protected, and these institutions should be re-issued to the markets when the economy stabilizes.