OK, how’s this for a plan: We all go on a buying binge — I’m personally thinking a sporty new $75k Jaguar, a $500k McMansion in an exclusive community, an extended vacation at a ritzy St. Lucia resort from November through February while wintry winds blow, maybe a Rolex or two, a fancy boat, and well, you get the picture.
You can doubtless come up with a similar list.
Then when the payment notices come in, we’ll just say collectively: Oh, my generous Uncle Sam will take care of it. Send the bills to Ben Bernanke over at the Fed; he’ll bail us out. Gotta protect the financial system, after all.
Which is pretty much what we’ve done in the ongoing subprime mortgage fiasco, wherein brokerages and banks were lending money willy-nilly to people who couldn’t afford the houses and other real estate they were buying.
But hey, who cares, it was bringing business in the door, generating millions of dollars in commissions and bonuses for company execs and, wow, is free enterprise America great or what?
Following the meltdown of Bear Sterns — which had brokered subprime mortgages for anyone who could put an X on the dotted line, regardless of repayment ability — and what was shaping up to be a financial crisis of monumental proportions, the Fed stepped in with $29 billion to keep the house of cards from collapsing.
This, when Bear Sterns’ CEO got $132 million in compensation over five years (ranking in the top 25 in the entire U.S.) and five top executives of the company got payments totaling $381 million. Plus millions more in bonuses. In a fiddling-while-Rome-burns scenario, the Wall Street Journal reported that Bear Sterns’ CEO was playing in a bridge tournament in Nashville and was out of touch by phone or e-mail during 10 critical days when his firm was going down the tubes. Hey, one must have priorities.
The repercussions rocked financial markets worldwide, and a sector that had been flying high, with basically little scrutiny or oversight — market forces at work, don’tcha know — was suddenly under the microscope and the Fed was scrambling to try and prevent a financial panic that was spreading globally.
In addition to the $29 billion to bail out Bear Sterns, the Senate proposed $25 billion in tax breaks for home builders and other affected businesses.
A large share of the blame for the subprime fiasco has been laid at the doorstep of high-roller hedge funds that were making billions of dollars by, in effect, betting that the mortgages wouldn’t be paid off. One hedge fund owner is reported to have made $3 billion doing just that.
Shades of Enron!
And while there is something inherently obscene about taxpayers picking up the tab for these high-flying gamblers, the Treasury Department, professing to bring more “transparency” to the operation of 8,000-plus hedge funds, allowed a handful of the funds to write “regulations” for the industry — which is kinda like handing the fox the keys to the henhouse. Analysts say the regs are a sham, basically unenforceable.
Is that a sweet deal, or what?