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The Last Straw

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It’s really hard to know which aphorism, adage or apothegm that passes for common wisdom is guiding the bailout efforts of the benighted Bush administration.

Is it “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again?” Or, “the third time’s the charm?” Or, “it ain’t over ’til it’s over?”

Whatever the guiding principle is (assuming there is one and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson is not simply chasing any ‘solution’ that flutters by), one hopes that something starts to work really soon. There are times when it seems like there’s just not that much rope left.

The Treasury has stumbled from one ineffective measure to the next so often that Mr. Paulson is beginning to look like Lurch from the Addams Family. (Central casting, listen up.)

Mr. Paulson is not quite there yet, but he is getting very close to receiving the ultimate accolade in this administration. That is to say, one of these days, the president will tell him “Heckuva job, Paulie! (Hankie?)”

Anyway, more than $200 billion into the bailout, we’re on version 3. First it was buying bad assets. Then it was pumping money into banks. Now … stay tuned, folks, the Treasury Secretary has another press conference coming right up.

You can see how well pumping money into banks has worked. The banks that got it (or had it forced on them) apparently have put it in mattresses of their own, holding it for an opportune acquisition or simply holding it, but not using it to provide loans for beleaguered, credit-starved businesses and consumers.

Wouldn’t you have thought that if you were dispensing billions of dollars to banks that had gotten themselves in trouble that you would have put some stipulations on how they use the money? Or even more basically, that they use the money?

That might have been akin to thinking ahead, which is something nobody’s going to accuse this team of doing.

In any case, we got to a situation where Citigroup, with some $2 trillion in assets, had its shares selling at one point for a bit over $3 per. The flashing red lights go on at Treasury! This is no fire drill, this is the real thing! Another institution too big to fail is moving toward the tipping point! Hank and company to the rescue!

In a reversion to what proved a failed strategy the first time around–saving individual institutions deemed too big to fail–Hank and company rode to Citi’s rescue with a loss-sharing agreement on assets worth some $306 billion. Citi will have to suck up the first $29 billion in losses, but after that the government’s on the hook for 90% of the remainder, or some $250 billion.

Citi probably is too big to fail without flooding the global financial system with catastrophic consequences. But part of the reason it got to the point of having to be rescued like some gigantic damsel in distress is that the Treasury Secretary has been sending out signals that are mixed at best and incoherent at worst.

We may indeed be going through an unprecedented chain of events, and maybe the powers-that-be have to learn as they go along. But that doesn’t give them permission to keep grasping at straws, all the while insisting that this is the very last straw, the straw that takes care of the problem.

The last straw, after all, is the one that broke the camel’s back.


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