Nobody has ever lost money by betting on the federal government to overreact to a crisis. And as Congress weighs a bailout of the financial markets, it looks as if that’s where the smart money should go yet again.
Any day now, lawmakers are expected to agree to invest some $700 billion -- more than the country spent on the first five years of the Iraq war -- to restore the financial markets. But lawmakers should also be careful to protect taxpayers.
Let’s begin by noting that there is a legitimate federal role in extraordinary circumstances. There are things Washington needs to do to keep our economy functioning. For example, it was a smart move for the Federal Reserve to pour $150 billion into the system. The Fed exists, after all, to make sure money keeps moving and credit remains available.
But as lawmakers debate buying up hundreds of billions in assets, they should realize that the government’s aggressive meddling in financial decision-making is what got our economy into this mess in the first place. The long-term answer isn’t more federal control, it’s a return to free-market principles.
One way to do so is to make sure that any bailouts are as limited as possible. If a private firm is so integral to the financial operations of the economy that it requires assistance, so be it. But in that case, the taxpayers’ should be investing as little as possible, and company management and stockholders should suffer the consequences of their bad investments.
Also, lawmakers should avoid turning the rescue package into a Christmas tree, loaded up with goodies for special interests. One proposal in a Senate bill would require 20 percent of any profitable transaction to be deposited into a special fund that pays for low-income housing. That’s a silly idea that would, in the long run, only serve to make things worse.
Consider one of the root causes of today’s problems: the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market.
A big reason for that failure is federal policies aimed at increasing home ownership. Getting more people into homes was a stated goal of the Bush administration and lawmakers of both parties, many of whom received massive campaign contributions from government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Fannie and Freddie played up their status as GSEs, telling shareholders they were a safe place to invest. Now they’ve been absorbed by the government, meaning investors may indeed be safe, but taxpayers are at risk. Washington needs to get out of the housing business. It shouldn’t be a federal concern whether or not someone owns a home.