Some Days You Get the Bear

Posted: Mar 27, 2008 12:01 AM
Some Days You Get the Bear

"If the Fed can extend $30 billion to help Bear Stearns address their financial crisis," Hillary Rodham Clinton argued, "the federal government should provide at least that much emergency help to families and communities to address theirs." That's a savvy appeal to Americans' strong sense of fundamental fairness -- that if goodies go to Wall Street, then they also should go to Main Street.

Voters, like buyers, should beware. You might think that Democrats oppose the $30 billion Bear Stearns bonanza, because it's a big government bailout that rewards bad business practices.

Wrong. Like Republican presidential candidate John McCain, Clinton and her Democratic rival, Barack Obama, support the Bear Stearns deal. It's one of those things that nobody likes much, but many economists on both the left and right nonetheless support -- even if it goes against their principles of fairness or free markets.

As economist Chad Stone, of the nonpartisan but left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, explained to me, "Achieving an orderly liquidation of Bear Stearns without having a fire sale on assets is a good thing, especially if the people who made bad decisions have to take their lumps. The injection of liquidity by the Fed makes sense as a triage measure to be withdrawn when the crisis passes."

On the right, economist Irwin M. Stelzer wrote in The Weekly Standard, "The era of free-market, no-government-intervention purists is over, if indeed it ever existed."

The ugly fact is that some businesses are too big to fail when their demise would shake confidence in the market and assuming $30 billion of Bear Stearns debt could thwart a recession.

The question is: If Washington put up $30 billion for Bear Stearns, then must Washington, as Clinton suggested, throw a like amount at bad home loans?

For McCain, the answer is no. "I will not play election-year politics with the housing crisis," was McCain's answer Tuesday. McCain wants the government to focus on improving accounting practices, changing the law to protect lenders who want to cut deals with delinquent mortgagees and concentrating on helping only what he called "deserving homeowners."

Critics can dismiss McCain for calling on lenders to do what already is in their interest. But McCain is right to focus on helping people who can hold onto their homes, rather than putting off the day of reckoning for people who can't afford their homes -- and never will.

In a speech Tuesday, McCain noted that housing prices rose by "nearly 15 percent every year" from 2001 and 2006, a statistic based on Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller indexes, which measure the residential housing market in major metropolitan areas.

If you live in what was a booming housing market, you may recall that few wanted the government to step in and control the market when real estate prices rose beyond all reason to the benefit of working homeowners. Now that prices have fallen, as was inevitable, some folks want the government to step in with more bailouts.

Clinton has proposed a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures, a five-year rate freeze on sub-prime adjustable-rate mortgages and a $30 billion program to help state and local governments reduce the number of foreclosures. McCain economic adviser Doug Holtz-Eakin dismissed Clinton's plan as a $30 billion "slush fund." Obama has proposed a $10 billion foreclosure prevention program to provide foreclosure counseling and money for people who have to sell homes they cannot afford. Such proposals run the risk of keeping real estate prices inflated longer and prolonging the pain.

I have a lot of sympathy for people who bought homes that they could not afford in the mistaken belief that savvy bankers would not approve a loan that they could not pay. They reached for the American dream, and if they lose their homes, their hold on that dream will loosen as well.

But do I trust the government to spend more bailout money wisely? Au contraire, the longer the government tries to make bad loans good, the longer it will take for the market to correct. That means spending more tax dollars to make the problem worse.