As Stimulus-Package Debate Continues in Congress, New-Look Bank Bailout Plan is Set to Debut This Week

Email
    Text size
Author Image for William Patalon III

By William Patalon III
Executive Editor
Money Morning/The Money Map Report

As the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression continues to worsen, decades of deregulation and the growing independence at the state level are being reversed as a deteriorating national economy forces the federal government to increasingly take on responsibilities that no other institution has the power or resources to handle.

This dismantling of the so-called “New Federalism” will be readily apparent again this week as the federal government is once again at the forefront of the most-closely watched  crisis-fighting initiatives at hand: With Congress pushing forward on an $827 billion stimulus plan and the Treasury Department

planning to unveil its new banking bailout blueprint on Tuesday, economists and other experts say the federal government is taking its biggest role in the economy in a generation.

States that once pushed away from the federal government as part of the New Federalism are now essentially begging it for financial support, banks and Big Business that once viewed near-total deregulation as Corporate America’s Holy Grail are now seeking federal financial aid and new regulatory protections (and in many cases are becoming actual business partners with the government), and individuals are asking for tax relief.

Alan Viard, a Bush administration economist now at the American Enterprise Institute, may well epitomize this reversal of thought: He’s one of the economists who initially rejected the need for a fiscal stimulus, stating that the right size for a government spending bill was “probably zero,” believing that federal interest rate cuts and existing unemployment benefits would be enough to do the trick. But he now sees the package as necessary.

“Things have gotten so bad so quickly,” Viard told The Washington Post. "We have now lost 3.6 million jobs, a stunning loss. But what's more horrifying is that half that loss has occurred in the last three months. This is a severe recession.”

The exact shape and size of the package matters less than the timing, and any delay will be very damaging, economists say.

"Most of the things in the package, the big dollar amounts, are things that are pretty quick stimulus and need to be done," Alice Rivlin, who was former president Bill Clinton's budget director and a critic of aspects of the proposed stimulus, told The Post. "Is it a perfect package? Of course not. But we're past that. Let's just do it."

Signs of the Stimulus

The U.S. Senate late Friday reached agreement on the estimated $827 billion stimulus bill, setting the stage for what’s expected to be some tough negotiations with the House of Representatives over tens of billions of dollars in aid to states and local governments, tax provisions, and programs focusing on education, health and renewable energy.

Congress is pushing hard to complete the legislation this week. But that figures to be a challenge. The House bill was passed without any Republican support, while the Senate version passed Friday night between Democrats and three moderate Republicans.

During a rare floor session on Saturday, Republican opponents continued to criticize the entire stimulus proposal – even though they clearly don’t have the votes to stop it. The bill is expected to be passed in the next few days.

The price tag for the Senate plan is only slightly more than the $820 billion measure adopted by the House late last month. Both plans seek to resuscitate the U.S. economy with similar one-two punch strategies:

  • Fast-acting tax cuts designed to jump-start consumer and business spending.
  • And longer-term – albeit slower-acting – spending on public works programs and other projects that are projected to create more than 3 million jobs.

Despite these seemingly similar philosophies, the two plans rely on approaches that are very different. The higher-priced House bill emphasizes help to states and municipalities that would otherwise be facing major cuts in services and layoffs of public employees, while the Senate slashed $40 billion of that kind of funding from its version of the bill.

The Senate plan focuses more on tax cuts, lowers a proposed increase in food stamps and provides health-care subsidies for the unemployed that are much less generous than the House version. The Senate plan also creates $30 billion in tax incentives to encourage Americans to buy homes and cars within the next year.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the emerging Senate cuts to the stimulus program "very damaging" and that she was "very much opposed to them." But after the Senate reached a deal, Pelosi expressed resolve to complete the legislation in the days ahead.

U.S. President Barack Obama has made the economic recovery effort the centerpiece of his agenda since even before he officially took office. But President Obama now intends to get much more involved, and much more aggressive: He will conduct a “town-hall-style” meeting in Indiana today (Monday), followed by a formal “prime time” White House news conference – the first of his term – tonight.

The president will then pitch the plan again in Florida tomorrow (Tuesday) and again in Virginia on Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said final passage of the Senate bill is expected Thursday, after which congressional leaders say they will hurry to get the House and Senate versions into conference with the hope that a passed bill can be sent to the White House by the end of week, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Banking Plan Overhaul Unveiling Tomorrow (Tuesday)

Busy new U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner last week promised that the Obama administration would unveil its new blueprint for rescuing the U.S. banking system today. Over the weekend, however, the administration said the rollout would be delayed until Tuesday, so that the focus could remain on passage of the stimulus package, Bloomberg News reported.

But that doesn’t mean the banking bailout plan isn’t key.

According to a recent analysis, the Obama administration has a multi-pronged strategy for quelling the financial crisis, including:

  • A program to insure banks against extreme losses on mortgages and other loans.
  • A new round of investments in banks.
  • Help for homeowners facing possible foreclosure.
  • The broadening of a U.S. Federal Reserve program to ramp up lending.
  • The Treasury Department could also look at purchasing toxic assets from banks – possibly with the aid of private-sector financing.

This would represent an overhaul of the $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) initiated by the Bush administration. As the name implies, TARP was initially concerned with buying troubled assets – but it quickly evolved into a direct-government investment into the banks.

This new Obama plan reflects Geithner’s personally held view of how governments should respond to financial crises. Geithner believes all available financial tools should be used – and used aggressively. Any such effort would include direct efforts to deal with the financial sector’s massive losses, since that would help renew public confidence in the financial system.

Too small a government response during a crisis poses more risk than too much response, he said during his confirmation hearing.

Many of the details of what Geithner will announce remained in flux, although the broad outlines were becoming clear, published reports state. But one thing is certain: Even the ideas that are continuations of the initiatives started by former Treasury Secretary Henry M. “Hank” Paulson Jr. will have a unique Geithner twist.

One example: The government will almost certainly continue to invest in banks. But past investments consisted of a form of “preferred stock” that granted the federal government no say in how the bank was run, or how the money would be used.

As a Money Morning investigation revealed, that lack of control allowed banks to use taxpayer-provided TARP money as financing for buyouts. And then the banks refused to detail how they spent the money – and why not? They weren’t required to.

Under the new plan, there will still likely be new government investments in banks. But Geithner will likely call for those new investments to be convertible into common stock after some fixed period of time, perhaps seven years. If the banks are unable to raise private capital in that span, government control would escalate.

Banks receiving money also will probably have to report to the government and to the public, and the government is likely to insist that the new capital be used to expand lending.

Geithner has also been looking for a way to bring back the original TARP concept, which Congress passed on Oct. 3. Paulson pitched the plan to Congress as a program to buy troubled assets off of banks' books, then shifted the plan and opted to invest directly into the banks instead.

Paulson’s chief worry – and the reason that he changed direction – was that asset purchases would involve too many technical complications, meaning it would take too long to enact. And that delay could be costly to a system where banks were teetering on the precipice of failure.

After struggling with those same issues, Geithner and his team appear to have settled on an approach that amounts to financial triage, meant to give investors confidence that banks will not encounter vast new losses so that they are willing to invest private money, The Post reported.

In addition to buying bad assets, the Fed and Treasury in the next few weeks are expected to expand a program that should jump-start lending outside the banking system. In November, the agencies launched a program – the “Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility” – that would devote $200 billion for credit card, auto, student and small-business loans.

That program will be extended to include residential real-estate mortgages and into the commercial real estate sector. Geithner may also announce an initiative that would inject government money into companies known as mono-line insurers. These firms are key players for states and municipalities when it comes time for those state and local government bodies to borrow money. With the implosion of the housing bubble, and the subsequent implosion of the commercial real estate business, mortgage-related losses by the insurers have made it harder for states to issue the municipal bonds that would help them ride out the recession without aggressive tax increases or budget cuts.

Geithner is likely to roll out a plan, worth $50 billion to $100 billion, to encourage the modification of mortgages for homeowners who would otherwise likely face foreclosure. It could be based loosely on a strategy for foreclosure relief engineered by Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) Chairman Sheila C. Bair, when the FDIC took control of the failed bank IndyMac Bancorp Inc. (IDMCQ) last year.

Market Matters

On the corporate front, United Parcel Service Inc. (UPS) posted a profit (though revenue declined) and then announced new cost-cutting measures.  Motorola Inc. (MOT), The Walt Disney Co. (DIS), Time Warner Inc. (TWX), and Costco Wholesale Corp. (COST) reported disappointing results.  Visa Inc’s (V) earnings jumped by 35%, though management warned of tougher times ahead.

Bailout plan recipients have tried to cut back excessive spending (and the associated bad PR) as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) (Miami) and Well Fargo & Co. (WFC) (Las Vegas) canceled huge boondoggles. Bank of America Corp. (BAC) is selling off corporate jets, and Citigroup Inc. (C) may be attempting to get out of the $400 million marketing deal with the New York Mets.

C-SPAN must be enjoying stellar ratings as investors seem obsessed with the inner-workings of Congress and their debates on the stimulus and bailout.  The markets disregarded much of the dire earnings and economic data (terrible unemployment report…see below) and focused on the newfound optimism that politicos can work together to get the country moving in the right direction.           


Market/ Index

Year Close (2008)

Qtr Close (12/31/08)

Previous Week
(01/30/09)

Current Week
(02/06/09)

YTD Change

Dow Jones Industrial

8,776.39

8,776.39

8,000.86

8,280.59

-5.65%

NASDAQ

1,577.03

1,577.03

1,476.42

1,591.71

+0.93%

S&P 500

903.25

903.25

825.88

868.60

-3.84%

Russell 2000

499.45

499.45

443.53

470.70

-5.76%

Fed Funds

0.25%

0.25%

0.25%

0.25%

0 bps

10 yr Treasury (Yield)

2.24%

2.24%

2.84%

2.98%

+74 bps

Economically Speaking

Just how long until a stimulus package starts creating jobs?  That answer can’t come soon enough for the almost 600,000 people who moved to the unemployment line in January, the most devastating month for job losses since 1974.  The unemployment rate climbed to 7.6%, forcing many economists to (upwardly) revise their projections for the rest of the year (and beyond).

Since the recession “officially” began in December 2007, the country has lost more than 3.6 million jobs, with most of the losses coming in the past three months.  The rest of the data released during the week did little to contradict the lousy unemployment picture.  Factory orders fell for the fifth straight month and the ISM index revealed that purchasing managers still look for contraction in the manufacturing sector. Though the services sector showed a slight rebound in its ISM survey, the index reported a fourth consecutive month of declining activity.  Residential construction spending experienced its worst annual decline ever recorded (since 1993), though optimists are hopeful that a stimulus package that focuses on infrastructure growth will prompt a renewal in non-residential building. 

With the Fed stuck looking for creative ways to get involved (now that the benchmark Federal Fund rate stands at about 0%), its international counterparts took action (or inaction) of their own. The Bank of England (BOE) cuts its primary lending rate to a record low 1.0%, while the European Central Bank chose to leave its rate unchanged (for now) at 2.0%. 

Weekly Economic Calendar


Date

Release

Comments

February 2

Personal Income/Spending (12/08)

Most savings since May as income fell 3rd straight month

 

Construction Spending (12/08)

Largest yearly decline in activity on record (1993)

 

ISM – Manu (01/09)

Recovered slightly from 28-year low in December

February 4

ISM – Services (01/09)

Better than expected reading on services sector

February 5

Initial Jobless Claims (01/31/09)

Highest claims’ level since October 1982

 

Factory Orders (12/08)

5th consecutive monthly decline

February 6

Unemployment Rate (01/09)

Surged to a higher than expected 7.6%

 

Nonfarm Payroll (01/09)

Most job losses since late 1974

 

Consumer Credit (12/08)

3rd straight month of decreased borrowing activity

The Week Ahead

 

 

February 11

Balance of Trade (12/08)

 

February 12

Initial Jobless Claims (02/07/09)

 

 

Retail Sales (01/09)

 

News and Related Story Links:

About the Author

Before he moved into the investment-research business in 2005, William (Bill) Patalon III spent 22 years as an award-winning financial reporter, columnist, and editor. Today he is the Executive Editor and Senior Research Analyst for Money Morning. With his latest project, Private Briefing, Bill takes you "behind the scenes" of his established investment news website for a closer look at the action. Members get all the expert analysis and exclusive scoops he can't publish… and some of the most valuable picks that turn up in Bill's closed-door sessions with editors and experts.

... Read full bio