Steve Pearlstein does an “I told you so” — Hank Paulson’s $125 Billion Mistake:
It was only a few weeks ago that most right-thinking economists and left-leaning bloggers were jumping on Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson for his plan to jump-start the markets in asset-backed securities by having the government buy them up at auction. Much better, they argued, to use the $700 billion to “recapitalize” the banking system, just as Gordon Brown was doing in Britain. Even the Federal Reserve thought that a better idea.
So Paulson changed course, called in the nine biggest banks and “forced” them as a group to accept $125 billon in new capital. The critics patted themselves on the back for having been right all along.
Now, many of the same people are shocked — shocked! — to discover that the banks aren’t using the money to make new loans to households and businesses, as they had assumed, but are using it to maintain dividend payments to shareholders, pay this year’s bonuses to executives and traders, or squirrel it away for future acquisitions.
I hate to say it, but I told you so. Sprinkling money around a highly fragmented banking system when markets were panicked and everyone was scrambling to reduce leverage was always akin to shoveling sand against the tide.
I think it may be a bit premature to call the direct infusion process a mistake. But I continue to believe – along with Pearlstein – that the best course of action is to buy up the assets:
Paulson’s first mistake was in allowing himself to be diverted from his original strategy, which stood a good chance of establishing reasonable and credible market prices for asset-backed securities — a necessary first step in attracting other buyers back into those frozen markets. That would take tremendous pressure off all banks, insurance companies, hedge funds and bond insurers, most of which now can’t raise capital because nobody can even guess what the assets on their books are worth, forcing accountants and auditors to assume the worst. It also would get liquidity to those institutions that most need it.
As I understand it, that program is still being set up. I hope it gets up and running soon.