Friday, April 3, 2009

Populist Outrage

Looks like Goldman Sachs is about to return its bailout money, as a number of other banks are about to do as well.  While Goldman might be doing fine, it points to a general problem: No one thinks that the banks are capitalized.  They're still short of capital, and billions of public dollars are necessary so that people trust the banking system and credit starts flowing again.  This is unpopular, but nothing short of ruining the taxpayer will prevent large-scale economic chaos.  

But that's not what people are focusing on, reflecting a lack of coherence across two administrations.  Paulson and Bernanke ignored the problem as long as they could, then came into Congress with the half-assed TARP plan.  This wasn't a great idea, but at least it did something--and was eventually used to pump in capital at a time after Lehman when people were really afraid about general collapse.  

Then six months passed, and the best government plan is still TARP, plus some private additions.  The ruckus over the AIG bonuses has destroyed whatever credibility that bailouts had in the first place, so Geithner is left cobbling together a solution without additional funds from Congress.  Nobody thinks this will be enough.  Worse, he's doing this while trying to create a new regulation regime, and has for months been working in an office which has been understaffed due to tight ethics standards for appointees.  Everybody else has been working on the stimulus package.

This is exactly the road Japan went down, and they found that nothing will get better until you tackle the banks, no matter how hard it is, or how much you work on rebooting the economy in other ways.  Everything can wait until the banks are fixed.

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