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Bear Stearns and the Free Market

Mar 28, 2008
The recent government-sponsored bailout of Bear Stearns, one of the top five lenders in the United States, has shocked traders and left investors cold. Despite the chilly reaction on Wall Street, secretly many are breathing a sigh of relief. While Bear Stearns was mismanaged from its upper echelons, its subprime exposure grew until their recent $30 billion-plus losses had to be reported.

Once that happened, their course took a turn for the worse. As their ability to shore up capital faltered, JPMorgan Chase stepped in with a buyout worth a bargain $2 a share, valuing a company worth $3.5 billion down to $236 million. Quite a savvy deal, if obviously designed to ensure continued security in the market more than pure profit (after last year's hedge funds collapses, Bear Stearn's lawyers have been busy with sub-prime exposure-related litigation).

With the impact of derivative investments and more sophisticated financial instruments, the notational impact of a Bear Stearns collapse comes at a staggering $10 trillion. Moreover, even at a share price that attractive, the Bear Stearns rival wouldn't have bought them unless a fundamental shift in monetary and fiscal policy hadn't occurred: The Federal Reserve's liquidity offers to commercial banks, which have been numerous in recent months in the wake of the credit crunch, have been offered to Bear Stearns for the purpose of covering billions in frothy investments.

This sets a dangerous precedent against the continued function of American markets by using taxpayer dollars to bail out what is an entirely market-related mistake. By covering bad investments with taxpayer money, the Federal Reserve reverses sixty years of capitalist policy in favor of blatantly socialist takeovers. This could be the worst way to introduce Americans to this form of quasi-socialist government ever conceived.

No one put a gun to Bear Stearn's collective head and made them spread risk ineffectively and invest in sketchy sub-prime mortgage securities. They did it all by themselves. Yet here we see a government-backed takeover to shore up confidence in a financial system that seems unable to take care of itself. Laissez-faire? Quite the opposite, it appears. What kind of message does this send to other financial institutions? Can they now expect similar access to the "discount window" that had been reserved for institutions that work with taxpayers, not investors?

We now have the dubious half-promise that the Fed will rein in on Wall Street during boom times, but isn't it a lack of regulation in loaning standards and a subsequent rise in "predatory loaning" what got them into this mess in the first place? And how many more Bear Stearns get the Fed rescue while millions of Americans face foreclosure? The Fed haven't received much criticism thus far, as their responses have taken a course they have helped the economy weather in past recessions.

However, their break from past precedent will likely draw some flags. Even if no one else will tell the emperor that his clothes are slipping off one piece at a time, hopefully the Presidential candidates will pounce on this new opportunity to compare traditional economic goals with the present shift in policy.
About the Author
Ki lives in Austin and writes a Austin real estate blog. His site is filled with information about Austin real estate and includes a free search of the Austin MLS.
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