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Is the Entire Bailout Strategy Flawed? Let's Rethink This Before It's Too Late

We gave the banks hundreds of billions to start lending again, and instead they're just hoarding the cash, waiting until things settle down.

America's recession is moving into its second year, with the situation only worsening.

The hope that President Obama will be able to get us out of the mess is tempered by the reality that throwing hundreds of billions of dollars at the banks has failed to restore them to health, or even to resuscitate the flow of lending.

Every day brings further evidence that the losses are greater than had been expected and more and more money will be required.

The question is at last being raised: Perhaps the entire strategy is flawed? Perhaps what is needed is a fundamental rethinking. The Paulson-Bernanke-Geithner strategy was based on the realization that maintaining the flow of credit was essential for the economy. But it was also based on a failure to grasp some of the fundamental changes in our financial sector since the Great Depression, and even in the last two decades.

For a while, there was hope that simply lowering interest rates enough, flooding the economy with money, would suffice; but three quarters of a century ago, Keynes explained why, in a downturn such as this, monetary policy is likely to be ineffective. It is like pushing on a string.

Then there was the hope that if the government stood ready to help the banks with enough money -- and enough was a lot -- confidence would be restored, and with the restoration of confidence, asset prices would increase and lending would be restored.

Remarkably, Bush administration Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and company simply didn't understand that the banks had made bad loans and engaged in reckless gambling. There had been a bubble, and the bubble had broken. No amount of talking would change these realities.

It soon became clear that just saying that we were ready to spend the money would not suffice. We actually had to get it into the banks. The question was how. At first, the architects of the bailout argued (with complete and utter confidence) that the best way to do this was buying the toxic assets (those in the financial market didn't like the pejorative term, so they used the term "troubled assets") -- the assets that no one in the private sector would touch with a 10-foot pole.

It should have been obvious that this could not be done in a quick way; it took a few weeks for this crushing reality to dawn on them . Besides, there was a fundamental problem: how to value the assets. And if we valued them correctly, it was clear that there would still be a big hole in banks' balance sheets, impeding their ability to lend.

Then came the idea of equity injection, without strings, so that as we poured money into the banks, they poured out money, to their executives in the form of bonuses, to their shareholders in the form of dividends.

Some of what they had left over they used to buy other banks -- to pursue strategic goals for which they could not have found private finance. The last thing in their mind was to restart lending.

The underlying problem is simple: Even in the heyday of finance, there was a huge gap between private rewards and social returns. The bank managers have taken home huge paychecks, even though, over the past five years, the net profits of many of the banks have (in total) been negative.

And the social returns have even been less -- the financial sector is supposed to allocate capital and manage risk, and it did neither well. Our economy is paying the price for these failures -- to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars.

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