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When the economic solutions presented by big dogs of the financial press coincide with those of a comedy news show, it may mean that the only idea left standing is to cure the ridiculous with the comically crazy. Personally, I'm not entirely opposed.
Common sense from the sidelines
Several weeks ago, The Daily Show host Jon Stewart pitched his own bailout plan to PBS' Gwen Ifill: "Take all the consumer debt, give us the money, but only for consumer debt and mortgages, we'll pay it back to them [the banks] … they'll have money, we'll have no debt, and the world will be made of unicorns and rainbows."
I could go for a unicorn.
Could it be that Mr. Finn, editor of Barron's, also liked the idea? He recently penned a front-page editorial describing a strikingly similar plan for stabilizing the financial system.
Mr. Finn's "straight-to-the-heart-of-it" (albeit slightly more refined) strategy sees the government giving $200 billion of TARP money to financial institutions that hold subprime mortgages, on the condition that funds be used to cut the nation's subprime principal by roughly 25%. Purportedly, this would give subprime borrowers a better shot at waking up at home each morning, and would provide banks with all-important capital, which could be used to offset losses, make investments, or help out struggling borrowers in the prime mortgage category.
Assuming that the game of curing economic ills with taxpayer money is a foregone conclusion (not one that I necessarily support), this approach seems to have actual promise of success.
Mr. Audacity: Come out, come out, wherever you are!
Alas, Mr. Stewart, Mr. Finn, and myself were let down. In announcing his mortgage plan this week, President Obama served up a bowl of soggy cornflakes at a time when the nation needs some real snap, crackle, and pop.
At a total price tag of up to $275 billion, including $50 billion that is already committed, the plan represents a tidy sum. However, the lion's share of that largesse --$200 billion, to be exact -- will be used to further capitalize Fannie Mae (NYSE: FNM ) and Freddie Mac (NYSE: FRE ) . According to the president, this additional capital will help keep mortgage rates low. As for the banks, a lowly $75 billion is available for a refinancing initiative, in which the government and the participating bank would share the cost of cutting struggling homeowners' rates. The thing is, bank participation is optional. At a time when JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM ) is itching to give back TARP money, I don't see many banks lining up to give the government more influence over their operations, regardless of federal incentives.
More than a plan to stave systemic financial risk, these policies amount to a weak gesture apparently designed to draw minimal fire from all groups.
Implications for investors
Frankly, I do not see this plan significantly helping the banks or their troubled borrowers. Consequently, Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) and Citigroup (NYSE: C ) continue to look like poker chips. Accordingly, the indirect aid to tapped-out homeowners who are also struggling with consumer debt is also minimized. As such, Discover Financial Services (NYSE: DFS ) , Capital One, and American Express (NYSE: AXP ) , all of which have reported rising credit card delinquencies, remain the same powder kegs of risk that they were earlier in the week.
Not only does the plan fall short in arresting housing market decline by making bank participation optional, but it also seems to miss the boat by including an emphasis on reduced rates for new mortgages. In historical terms, house prices are still high. In fact, the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index pegged home values as of November 2008 at having fallen only to 2004 levels -- this is in the context of residential real estate's 10-year 1996-2006 bull run. I question how many first-time homebuyers are waiting in the wings, willing and able to plunk down a 20% down payment.
In his editorial, Mr. Finn argued that "getting our financial system fixed is far more important than assigning blame or waiting around for a solution that is perfectly fair." Until the government can deliver on that philosophy, I would steer clear of anything financial or housing-related.
Other views on housing-market mayhem: