France 24: How to spend $700 billion

By Y. Euny Hong (October 1, 2008)

Published in France 24 here

The proposed US bailout could buy 2,000 apple pies for every American. FRANCE 24 asked two economists how they would spend the money.

If someone gave you $700 billion to rescue the US economy, how would you spend it? Read what two economists say, then give us your ideas by clicking 'React'.

"The bill is a dog's breakfast," says British economist Eamonn Butler of the proposed $700 billion US bailout package. "It's just a bunch of unrelated things cobbled together," adds the director of the Adam Smith Institute, a London-based free market think tank, "from saying that banker bonuses should be smaller, to talking about auto workers in Detroit".

Butler's colleague on the other side of the Atlantic, Oliver Hart at Harvard University (also a Brit), is not happy with the bill either: he signed a joint letter to Congress protesting the measure. Among his objections: What's the rush?

"They're trying to push it through fast, saying if we don't act quickly, the world is going to end," he told FRANCE 24. "Democracy is not meant to work that way." Hart does not feel that time-sensitivity should have been such a chief factor. "There's not much evidence of a market crash. If someone has to wait two weeks instead of one to borrow, it's not the end of the world."

The apple pie index

The proposed bailout plan would allow the Treasury to buy bad mortgage-related assets from banks, thereby freeing up money for the banks to lend to businesses and keep the economy going.  The US Senate approved an amended version of the draft Wednesday night, a few days after the House of Representatives first rejected it.

The version adopted by the Senate adds up to 100 billion dollars in tax break extensions for middle class families and businesses, elements designed to entice reluctant Republicans in the House of Representatives to support the measure.

An often-expressed fear is that in the absence of such a bill, the United States - and the world - could see the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s. But many lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, are asking why the ordinary Americans they represent should have to foot the bill for the Wall Street banks - whose risky deals created the crisis in the first place.

The common perception of the bill is exemplified by a joke made on the comedy programme The Daily Show: that $700 billion is enough to buy 2,000 McDonald's apple pies for every US citizen. This joke goes to the heart of the matter, that many Americans feel the bailout has no clear benefit for the average person.

A scalpel, not an axe

Asked what he would do if he were given $700 billion to save the US economy, Hart joked: "I wouldn't spend it on apple pies; there's enough obesity in this country." But, he went on, he wouldn't spend it on an industry-wide bailout either - and not with that price tag. "I don't know what Bernanke knows," he said, referring to Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. "You can't say he's not a good economist. But buying up distressed assets is… not the best way."

The problem with the current plan, says Hart, is that the government has no accurate way of knowing the value of the assets it is trying to buy from the banks. "What is the value of these subprime packages? Nobody knows."

Furthermore, pricing the purchase is a double bind. "If the government pays less (for the assets), they're not helping the banks recapitalize. But if they pay high prices, the government's making a loss." And wasting some of that $700 billion.

Hart, left to his druthers, would "lend money to solid businesses, not a massive bailout... I would tackle the failure in the credit markets directly, using a scalpel and not an axe…. A focused intervention would encourage banks to recapitalize, perhaps by issuing equity. It wouldn't cost $700 billion."

Furthermore, he would spend the cash on concrete measures: building bridges and other infrastructure projects, as well as paying down the budget deficit, which would reduce the need for future taxes.

Free chips, free drinks at the bar

Butler's think tank was built on the principles of Adam Smith, the 18th century economic pioneer, and espouses a free market with minimal government intervention.

One might expect someone with such a pedigree to have little sympathy for a mortgage customer who gets himself into trouble by overborrowing.

Yet Butler takes a surprising stance. If given a $700 billion check, Butler says he would "give it to the individuals that have the loans they can't repay… It's not their fault. When institutions are forced to give loans, it's like being in a casino where the government gives free chips and the regulators are giving out free drinks at the bar."

While Butler, like Hart, opposes the plan for an industry-wide bailout, he believes that bailouts in specific cases are necessary. "Markets depend on confidence. Here in England we bailed out Northern Rock because people were queuing up in the streets to take out their money."

This might have Adam Smith rolling in his grave, but perhaps he wouldn't have understood the US plan.

Slug path
Old Teaser