Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Thanks, But No Thanks

As public outrage swells over the rapidly growing cost of bailing out financial institutions, the Obama administration and lawmakers are attaching more and more strings to rescue funds.

The conditions are necessary to prevent Wall Street executives from paying lavish bonuses and buying corporate jets, some experts say, but others say the conditions go beyond protecting taxpayers and border on social engineering.

Some bankers say the conditions have become so onerous that they want to return the bailout money. The list includes small banks like the TCF Financial Corporation of Wayzata, Minn., and Iberia Bank of Lafayette, La., as well as giants like Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo.

Take Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the housing-finance companies that the government now controls. In recent months, they have been told to spend billions of dollars buying bundles of mortgages for which there are no other buyers, and to let homeowners refinance their loans — even if they have no equity.

Such commands are echoes of the 1990s, when Fannie and Freddie tried to balance dueling mandates that required them to make a profit for their shareholders and to serve a public mission of increasing homeownership.

In service of both shareholders and what they asserted was the public good, they borrowed extensively in order to buy and hold mortgages in their own investment portfolios. They purchased billions of dollars in risky subprime mortgages.

As a consequence of having a public mandate, they also had a credit line with the Treasury and their risky business strategies were viewed by the markets as being guaranteed by the government.