Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Bush Economy Speech

Dear Mr. Bush,

Thank you for taking time out of your busy day to explain to us why your administration is proposing this $700 billion Troubled Asset Repurchase Plan. I feel it is the least I can do to respond to some of the points you have raised.

First, you mentioned a number of questions that you knew many Americans have tonight: "How did we reach this point in our economy? How will the solution I've proposed work? And what does this mean for your financial future?" I would like to add two more: How will we prevent this situation in the future? And why is the solution you have proposed the appropriate one?

I couldn't help but notice that your discussion of how we reached this point in our economy did not touch on some factors that are probably significant. You mention large amounts of foreign investment, easy credit, a faulty assumption that house prices would continue to increase, and a large number of mortgage defaults triggered by an oversupply of housing. But you did not discuss the role of deregulation in creating a complex, intertwined financial system, in which no one knows the size of the Credit Default Swap market, an issue that led to the government's $85 billion line of credit to American International Group.

You also did not address the role of the credit ratings agencies and their failure to properly rate this mortgage debt. Nor did you touch upon the role moral hazard plays, in which a free market, hands-off philosophy only during good times allows financial companies to keep their profits but encourages them to take on too much risk, on the belief that the government will bail them out. Finally, you did not provide your thoughts on whether compensation packages that reward chief executive officers for short term gain, coupled with severance packages that do not take into account the long term financial position of the company, create an incentive for too much risk.

In fact, Mr. President, your discussion of how to avoid this situation in the future was limited to Mr. Paulson's suggestion that the Federal Reserve (not the SEC?) "take a closer look at the operations of companies across the financial spectrum and ensure that their practices do not threaten overall financial stability" and that Congress consider "other good ideas," but with the stern caution that they must "ensure that efforts to regulate Wall Street do not end up hampering our economy's ability to grow."

That last caution was enough out of step with the rest of our address that it seems necessary to address some of its implications. In justifying this deviation from your normal inclination against intervening in the markets, you said that "these are not normal circumstances" and that "the market is not functioning properly." Mr. President, I put it to you that, by the time a company has grown "too large to fail," it is already operating outside the free market system--by definition. Once it has reached that size, the market forces that apply to that company are already not functioning properly.

You also did not address why the solution you propose is the correct one. You made a case for quick action, painting a gloomy picture of the consequences of inaction and noting that the government's top economic experts are warning there must be immediate action. But from there, the primary justification you offer for this particular economic rescue plan is to say "after much discussion, there is now widespread agreement on the principles such a plan would include." I cannot help but note that the news reaching us taxpayers does not portray anything approaching "widespread agreement" from Congress.

Why are you confident that $700 billion, spent primarily to buy bad debt from financial institutions, is the appropriate fix for this problem? What will be the long term effect on the economy of raising the debt ceiling? Is it appropriate to delay addressing those "good ideas" to prevent this problem in the future until after spending the money, rather than building provisions into the contracts with the firms that will receive the money, or at least building in additional latitude such as the ability to obtain a significant voting block of stock?

Finally, I understand there is only so much you can fit into a fifteen minute appearance, and you no doubt had good reasons to limit your talk to fifteen minutes. In the future, however, may I suggest asking your speech writers to include a good sound bite. Here's a good starting point: "we have nothing to fear but fear itself."

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