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Have Geithner's Zombie Ideas Won? Paul Krugman on the "Cash for Trash" Program

Krugman on Geithner's toxic assets program: "It’s the zombie that you keep killing, and it just keeps coming back."

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Goodman: Called “cash for trash”?

Krugman: Yeah, that’s—that was the phrase that was out there six months ago, which I picked up. And yeah, it’s basically saying that, you know, there’s nothing really fundamentally wrong with our banking system; there’s just this crisis of confidence, and so nobody wants to buy, you know, asset-backed securities, nobody wants to buy stuff that’s ultimately backed by home mortgages, and if only we could get people to see that these things are really pretty decent assets, then the banks will be in fine shape. And that’s the trouble. You know, there’s an argument that says maybe they were somewhat underpriced, but to make this the centerpiece of your financial rescue plan is just—well, as I wrote in the column, it leaves me with a feeling of despair.

Goodman: Members of the Obama administration hit the Sunday talk show circuit yesterday to drum up support for the administration’s plan to purchase up to a trillion dollars in troubled mortgages and other so-called toxic assets. Austan Goolsbee, a key White House economic adviser, was on Face the Nation . Harry Smith of CBS News quoted from your writing about the administration’s plan. This is an excerpt.

    Harry Smith: There’s been a lot of negative press about this thing that hasn’t even been unveiled yet, and Paul Krugman, in his blog today, said, “For the private investors, this is an open invitation to play heads I win, tails the taxpayers lose.”

    Austan Goolsbee: I don’t think that’s an accurate description. I mean, if the government doesn’t make money, the private sector doesn’t make money either. I mean, these guys are coming in in a partnership, and one of the reasons you want to have the partnership is precisely so that, A, the government doesn’t massively overpay for these troubled assets that are on the balance sheets, and B, so that everybody’s got skin in the game and you don’t get into situations where you’re paying guys for failure.

Goodman: Paul Krugman, your response?

Krugman: The important thing is not the shared equity. I’m sorry, it’s hard to avoid lapsing into jargon here. But 85 percent, at least according to the counts over the weekend, 85 percent of the money is going to be a loan from the government, which is a non-recourse loan, which means that it’s backed only by the assets that these guys are buying, which means that if the thing loses more than 15 percent of its value, which is highly, you know, possible, given how uncertain these things are worth, then the investors, the private investors, just walk away. So there’s—exactly, it’s a heads I win, tails you lose. If the stuff—you buy something at $100 and it goes up to $150, you make $50. You buy it at $100 and it goes down to $50, then you only lose $15, because the other $35 gets even by the taxpayer. So it’s a—it’s the same thing.

It’s basically what happened with savings and loans in the 1980s. They were deregulated and basically put in the position where the deposits were guaranteed, but the owners of the banks could do whatever they wanted, and so they took these huge risks, and most of the risks turned out bad. But if the risks turned out bad, it was the taxpayers’ problem, not the bank owners’ problem. Same thing here. They’re deliberately setting it up, so that there’s this huge incentive to—you know, basically where the upside belongs to the private investors, but most of the downside belongs to you and me.

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