President Obama met today with members of Congress to jawbone them on the pending financial reform bill. A key part of his message: “we must end taxpayer bailouts.” Few statements are less controversial than that. Nobody wants to see more bailouts.
But wait a second. Doesn’t the very legislation he’s plumping for — and which will soon be voted on in the Senate — itself provides for bailouts. When asked that by a reporter just before the meeting, the President hedged, saying only “…I am absolutely confident that the bill that emerges is going to be a bill that prevents bailouts. That’s the goal.”
Well, that goal, as it turns out, only survives up to page 134 of the 1,334 page Senate bill. On that page begins a section entitled “Funding for Orderly Liquidation.” The text reads that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the designated federal receiver for failing financial firms, “may make available…funds for the orderly liquidation of [a] covered financial institution.”
Where are those funds to come from? Well, on page 272 the bill creates an “Orderly Resolution Fund” within the U.S. Treasury. The target size of this fund? Fifty billlion dollars.
That sure looks like a bailout fund. Yet, the bill’s supporters deny it. Elizabeth Warren, a leading proponent of the plan, calls the idea that it perpetuates bailouts “just nuts.”
The argument is that no funds could be provided to to compensate a firm’s shareholders. They would be forced to bear the cost of a firm’s failure, so it’s true they they aren’t being bailed out. But the failing firm’s other creditors would be eligible for a cash bailout. The situation is much like the scheme implemented for AIG in 2008, in which the largest beneficiaries weren’t stockholders, but rather other creditors, including foreign firms such as Deutsche Bank. Hardly a model to be emulated.
The second line of defense is that, bailout or not, the funds are to come from fees on big banks, not from taxes. But that’s a distinction without a difference — whether it’s called a fee or a tax, the effect is the same. And the fact that it will be paid by “big banks” is hardly cause for relief. Like other taxes, these would certainly be passed on to consumers, who would ultimately pay the tab.
President Obama should be congratulated for calling for an end to bailouts. Now he needs to find a plan that actually accomplishes that goal.