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The President's Working Group on Financial Markets, an inter-agency collection of regulators led by Paulson, had actually been looking into potential problems with hedge funds and derivatives. But they missed CDOs. Paulson terms the oversight "obvious after the fact." Not so, say some observers. "I've got a lot of respect for Paulson and his credentials," says Glenn Hubbard, who was chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers in the early Bush years and is now dean of Columbia Business School. "But this looks like the Fed and Treasury were lurching from crisis to crisis, when much of this was forecastable."
Early on, it was Bernanke and the Federal Reserve that took the lead, with various measures meant to keep financial markets functioning and banks lending. But as house prices kept dropping, the problem began to shift. It was no longer just that financial institutions were wary of lending, but also that some would go under from the losses they were taking on mortgages and mortgage-related securities.
For banks and thrifts, there are well-defined procedures for dealing with insolvencies through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. But much of the financial action in recent years has moved to companies for which there is no such shutdown plan. When Wall Street firm and major mortgage player Bear Stearns experienced something akin to a bank run in March, the solution that Paulson and Bernanke came up with was a hastily arranged sale to JPMorgan Chase & Co., backed by a $29 billion guarantee from the Fed. The Fed is responsible for keeping prices stable and credit flowing. Bailing out troubled lenders to prevent a financial meltdown is a entirely different kind of job, one that most economists say belongs in the hands of Treasury and Congress in part because they're more directly accountable to taxpayers.
Treasury Takes Charge
Paulson doesn't disagree, and the legislation to backstop Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac the government-created, shareholder-owned corporations that buy the bulk of U.S. mortgages and repackage them as securities can be seen as the first big step toward Treasury's taking the cleanup job out of the Fed's hands. Fannie and Freddie owe or guarantee immense quantities of debt ($5.2 trillion, or almost as much as the Federal Government owes investors) but hold only tiny capital reserves to insure against losses. With house prices down 18% nationally since mid-2006 and defaults rising, worries were growing that they might be insolvent.
Paulson says that unlike the situation with Bear Stearns, there was never a moment when the two firms appeared in imminent danger of failure. But he saw far more dire potential consequences than in the case of Bear. "Their securities move like water among all of the financial institutions," he says of Fannie and Freddie. If holders ranging from central banks in Asia to community banks in Iowa had lost confidence, the ensuing sell-off might have been catastrophic.
On a more mundane level, Paulson was aware that Congress had only a few weeks left in session. There was already a housing bill well along in the legislative process that provided for a new, tougher regulator for Fannie and Freddie (among many other things). So Paulson jumped into action. On Friday, July 11, he met twice with President Bush, bypassing White House economic advisers who opposed any kind of taxpayer bailout. Over the weekend, he talked to congressional leaders. And all along, he was consulting with Bernanke. On Sunday the 13th, Paulson made the dramatic announcement on the steps of the Treasury building that he was seeking an unlimited line of credit to backstop Fannie and Freddie, plus the authority to buy shares in the companies. Within two weeks, Congress delivered. The President signed the measure into law July 30.
"I think that we were stampeded into panic legislating," says Spencer Bachus, the ranking Republican on the House Financial Services Committee, who voted against the bill. But that's the loser's perspective. In Paulson's view, Congress was simply doing what made sense. "The more flexibility I have, the more confidence that gives to the market, the less likelihood the authorities will be used and the better for the taxpayers," he says. In other words, Trust me. Do we have much of a choice?
With reporting by Michael Duffy / Washington