By DAVID STOUT
Published: September 20, 2008

WASHINGTON — News reports about the upheaval in the world of finance have been full of esoteric terms like “mortgage-backed securities” and “credit-default swaps,” but the crisis has resonated for people who know little about Wall Street and who did not think they would ever have to know. Here are several questions and answers of concern to Main Street Americans:

Q. The bailout program being negotiated by the Bush administration and Congressional leaders calls for the government to spend up to $700 billion to buy distressed mortgages. How did the politicians come up with that number, and could it go higher?

A. The recovery package cannot go higher than $700 billion without additional legislation. As for that figure, it lies between the optimistic estimate of $500 billion and the pessimistic guess of $1 trillion about the cost of fixing the financial mess. But the $700 billion is in addition to an $85 billion agreement on a bailout of the insurance giant American International Group, plus $29 billion in support that the government pledged in the marriage of Bear Stearns and JPMorgan Chase. On top of all that, the Congressional Budget Office says the federal bailout of the mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could cost $25 billion.

Q. Who, really, is going to come up with the $700 billion?

A. American taxpayers will come up with the money, although if you are bullish on America in the long run, there is reason to hope that the tab will be less than $700 billion. After the Treasury buys up those troubled mortgages, it will try to resell them to investors. The Treasury’s involvement in the crisis and the speed with which Congress is responding could generate long-range optimism and raise the value of those mortgages, although it is impossible to say by how much.

So it would not be correct to think of the federal government as simply writing a check for $700 billion. It is just committing itself to spend that much, if necessary. But the bottom line is, yes, this bailout could cost American taxpayers a lot of money.

Q. So is it fair to say that Americans who are neither rich nor reckless are being asked to rescue people who are? What is in this package for responsible homeowners of modest means who might be forced out of their homes, perhaps for reasons beyond their control?

A. Yes, you could argue that people who cannot tell soybean futures from puts, calls and options are being asked to clean up the costly mess left by Wall Street. To make the bailout palatable to the public, it is being described as far better than inaction, which administration officials and members of Congress say could imperil the retirement savings and other investments of Americans who are anything but rich.

But it is a good bet that the negotiations between the administration and Capitol Hill will include ideas about ways to help middle-class homeowners avoid foreclosure and perhaps some limits on pay for executives. And it should be noted that neither party is solely responsible for whatever neglect led the country to the brink of disaster.

Q. How is it that the administration and Congress, which have not tried to find huge amounts of money to, say, improve the nation’s health insurance system or repair bridges and tunnels, can now be ready to come up with $700 billion to rescue the financial system? And is it realistic to think that the parties can reach agreement and get legislation passed in a hurry?

A. The first question will surely come up again, involving as it does not just issues of spending policy but also more profound questions about national aspirations. As for rescuing the financial system, elected officials in both parties became convinced that, while a couple of venerable investment banks could fade into oblivion or be absorbed by mergers, the entire financial system could not be allowed to collapse.

And, yes, the parties are likely to reach an accord. Many members of Congress are eager to leave Washington to go home and campaign for the November elections, and no one wants to face the voters without having done something to protect modest savings portfolios as well as giant investors.

Stephen Labaton and David M. Herszenhorn contributed reporting.

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再中秋

九月 18, 2008


临畔熙熙共襄秋,玉壶九照瞀寐宿;

酥饼喷香烛笼照,只希一梦人长久。

……………………………………………

写于二零零八年九月十五日,记农历八月十五裕华园中秋行

From The New York Times
Published: September 14, 2008

Will the U.S. financial system collapse today, or maybe over the next few days? I don’t think so — but I’m nowhere near certain. You see, Lehman Brothers, a major investment bank, is apparently about to go under. And nobody knows what will happen next.

To understand the problem, you need to know that the old world of banking, in which institutions housed in big marble buildings accepted deposits and lent the money out to long-term clients, has largely vanished, replaced by what is widely called the “shadow banking system.” Depository banks, the guys in the marble buildings, now play only a minor role in channeling funds from savers to borrowers; most of the business of finance is carried out through complex deals arranged by “nondepository” institutions, institutions like the late lamented Bear Stearns — and Lehman.

The new system was supposed to do a better job of spreading and reducing risk. But in the aftermath of the housing bust and the resulting mortgage crisis, it seems apparent that risk wasn’t so much reduced as hidden: all too many investors had no idea how exposed they were.

And as the unknown unknowns have turned into known unknowns, the system has been experiencing postmodern bank runs. These don’t look like the old-fashioned version: with few exceptions, we’re not talking about mobs of distraught depositors pounding on closed bank doors. Instead, we’re talking about frantic phone calls and mouse clicks, as financial players pull credit lines and try to unwind counterparty risk. But the economic effects — a freezing up of credit, a downward spiral in asset values — are the same as those of the great bank runs of the 1930s.

And here’s the thing: The defenses set up to prevent a return of those bank runs, mainly deposit insurance and access to credit lines with the Federal Reserve, only protect the guys in the marble buildings, who aren’t at the heart of the current crisis. That creates the real possibility that 2008 could be 1931 revisited.

Now, policy makers are aware of the risks — before he was given responsibility for saving the world, Ben Bernanke was one of our leading experts on the economics of the Great Depression. So over the past year the Fed and the Treasury have orchestrated a series of ad hoc rescue plans. Special credit lines with unpronounceable acronyms were made available to nondepository institutions. The Fed and the Treasury brokered a deal that protected Bear’s counterparties — those on the other side of its deals — though not its stockholders. And just last week the Treasury seized control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the giant government-sponsored mortgage lenders.

But the consequences of those rescues are making officials nervous. For one thing, they’re taking big risks with taxpayer money. For example, today much of the Fed’s portfolio is tied up in loans backed by dubious collateral. Also, officials are worried that their rescue efforts will encourage even more risky behavior in the future. After all, it’s starting to look as if the rule is heads you win, tails the taxpayers lose.

Which brings us to Lehman, which has suffered large real-estate-related losses, and faces a crisis of confidence. Like many financial institutions, Lehman has a huge balance sheet — it owes vast sums, and is owed vast sums in return. Trying to liquidate that balance sheet quickly could lead to panic across the financial system. That’s why government officials and private bankers have spent the weekend huddled at the New York Fed, trying to put together a deal that would save Lehman, or at least let it fail more slowly.

But Henry Paulson, the Treasury secretary, was adamant that he wouldn’t sweeten the deal by putting more public funds on the line. Many people thought he was bluffing. I was all ready to start today’s column, “When life hands you Lehman, make Lehman aid.” But there was no aid, and apparently no deal. Mr. Paulson seems to be betting that the financial system — bolstered, it must be said, by those special credit lines — can handle the shock of a Lehman failure. We’ll find out soon whether he was brave or foolish.

The real answer to the current problem would, of course, have been to take preventive action before we reached this point. Even leaving aside the obvious need to regulate the shadow banking system — if institutions need to be rescued like banks, they should be regulated like banks — why were we so unprepared for this latest shock? When Bear went under, many people talked about the need for a mechanism for “orderly liquidation” of failing investment banks. Well, that was six months ago. Where’s the mechanism?

And so here we are, with Mr. Paulson apparently feeling that playing Russian roulette with the U.S. financial system was his best option. Yikes.