Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice. ...
-- Robert Frost
WASHINGTON -- And some say it will end because of subprime mortgages. But for those who cultivate fears of catastrophes as excuses for expanding government supervision of other people's lives, the bad news is that the world is not going to end -- not from global warming or economic cooling or anything else. Today's untethered Federal Reserve will, however, make the muddle-through interesting.
The late Sen. William Proxmire, a populist Democrat who represented Wisconsin for 32 years, wanted all members of Congress to write on their bathroom mirrors, so it is the first thing they read each day, this: "The Fed is a creature of Congress." Congress created the Federal Reserve pursuant to its constitutional power "to coin money" and "regulate the value thereof." Fortunately, Congress has left the Fed free to go about its business.
But suddenly the Fed is undergoing radical "mission creep." The description of the Fed as the "lender of last resort" is accurate without being informative. Lender to whom? For what purposes? Last resort before what? Did the bank "lend" $29 billion to Bear Stearns, or did it, in effect, buy some of the most problematic securities owned by Bear? If so, was this faux "loan" actually to J.P. Morgan Chase? The purpose of the money was to give Morgan an incentive to buy Bear -- at a price so low that an incentive should have been superfluous.
In 1979, when the government undertook to rescue Chrysler, conservatives worried not that the bailout would fail but that it would work, thereby inflaming government's interventionist proclivities and lowering public resistance to future flights of Wall Street socialism. It "worked": Chrysler has survived to endure its current crisis. The fallacious argument in 1979 was that Chrysler was then "too big to be allowed to fail."
Today's argument is that Bear Stearns was so connected to the financial system in opaque ways that no one could guess the radiating consequences of its failure -- the financial consequences or, which sometimes is much the same thing, psychological.
But what is now the principle by which other distressed firms will elicit Fed interventions in future uncertainties? By what criteria does Washington henceforth determine whether a large entity is "too connected to fail"?
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