Thursday, September 25, 2008

Bailout: The Sucker Punch

By Alyce Lomax

I know many people are convinced that something akin to a financial apocalypse will occur if the $700 billion bailout isn't rammed through quickly.

Some major questions and issues about our socioeconomic situation are getting lost in all the panic and noise.

The big sucker punch 
On one side: "Save the banks; ask questions later." On the other: "But what about the poor homeowners, losing their homes?"

Although attention is being paid to "the taxpayer," I can't understand why more emphasis isn't put on the biggest victims of all, those poor suckers who:

  • Save money, even with no incentive to do so since interest rates are ridiculously low, and possibly don't even utilize credit card debt.
  • Rent and refused to buy overpriced homes with some cockamamie mortgage scheme, and have been waiting for a major price correction so they can achieve the American Dream the proper way.

I'm sorry, but they're really getting the shaft, even if their fiscal conservatism and cheapness just look so darn un-American to many people these days. You know, "the paradox of thrift" and all that. Add in runaway inflation from printing out money, and the potential for major tax increases to pay for our profligate ways, and these people are really getting the business.

The geniuses -- Wall Street and individuals -- who got us into this mess probably looked down their noses at these "infernal" savers and "cheapskates" for not tinkering with their own personal capital structures in a moresophisticated manner. Now they're trying to cheat those people out of affordable homes by making an artificial floor in the prices. Thanks, guys.

American dream ... or nightmare? 
Furthermore, all this bellyaching about lost homes ignores that many of the "homeowners" were participants in an unsustainable bubble, and many would never have gotten homes they couldn't afford if lending standards had been reasonable, and "exotic" mortgages hadn't been vogue.

Meanwhile, I suspect many of the foreclosed-upon will simply rent, maybe even smaller places that are within their means. May I speak as someone who rents an apartment and say that that's really not the most horrible fate in the world?

Anybody remember decades ago, when -- gasp! horrors! -- children sometimes shared bedrooms, fought over one TV (or in later years, one computer), and the typical family home had only one or one-and-a-half bathrooms?

I guess some people must think that sounds like living in the woods or something, huh? When did we all go nuts?

Our long national hallucination 
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke warns that we risk a recession if the bailout doesn't go through. Well, as far as I know, recessions are a natural part of the economic cycle. We may be in for one giant economic spanking, but I kind of suspect it's deserved and will happen eventually, regardless.  

Bernanke's "nightmare" scenario included households having a hard time getting credit. A common example lately is how people need really good credit scores to, say, buy a new car.

And why is that a nightmare, again?

Of course, the implication is that companies like poor Ford (NYSE: F), Chrysler, and General Motors (NYSE: GM) will suffer if folks who are already in way over their heads can't buy new cars. This will extend to all kinds of things we want instead of need, but of course, keeping up with the Joneses has been awfully good for our consumer-driven growth, until recently.  

I can't help but wonder if the point of the bailout is to take the deflated bubble, which was inflated by easy credit to begin with, blow a little air into it, and apply a patch that just won't hold. Is the real point that we have to return to loose lending to maintain our economic "growth"?

How much would our economy have grown since 2001 without all the debt-fueled spending? I feel like the real message right now is that the party's over, but nobody wants it to be. (And it was an acid-trip bender to begin with -- nothing that happened was actually real.)

For the love of bubbles 
Our current "moral hazard" has far wider implications than simply talking about mammoth bailouts for companies like Fannie MaeFreddie MacAIG(NYSE: AIG)Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS), or Morgan Stanley(NYSE: MS).

As much as Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE: BRK-A) (NYSE: BRK-B)investment in Goldman Sachs may provide some semblance of confidence, we still need to ask some really important questions of ourselves, given that we're maybe applying extremely expensive Band-Aids to huge, gaping wounds in our collective reasoning and spending habits.

I know people are coming down on all sides of this issue. My Foolish colleagues are sounding off: Chuck Saletta doesn't like the bailout (honestly, neither do I), Morgan Housel is for the bailout, and David Lee Smith has somegood questions about the bailout. Even our co-founder, Tom Gardner, weighed in with a plea to encourage Washington to respect the free market when it made its bailout decision.

I think we need to ask ourselves many, many questions: Why are we in love with bubbles and speculation, and why do we try to convince ourselves they are sound investment strategies? And should our economic well-being be so reliant on being hopelessly in the hole? Given the last 10 or so years, these are essential questions.  

I'm not getting a clear idea that this bailout will address an important issue: We need to become a nation of savers again, not debtors, and that applies to the government, companies, and individuals. I hope that becomes part of the conversation, because bailout or not, our attitude is unsustainable.  

I've had a lot of questions lately:

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