T Nation

Specter on the Bailout

Here is a letter Senator Specter sent to a family member regarding the bailout. Thought people here might be interested.

Dear XXXX:

Thank you for contacting my office regarding the financial rescue legislation. I appreciate your views on this matter.

I reluctantly supported this package because the failure of Congress to act would run the risk of dire consequences, including an economic downturn which could cause more foreclosures, jeopardize retirement accounts, and further restrict credit which is necessary for small businesses to operate. I am philosophically opposed to bailouts. I think that when you have Wall Street entrepreneurs who take big risks to make big profits and they go sour, they ought to sustain the loss themselves and not look to the government for a bailout which ends up in the laps of the taxpayers. However, I supported the plan to avoid economic disaster that would extend well beyond Wall Street.

From the outset, I cautioned against Congress’s rushing to judgment. When the initial proposal was made in mid-September, I wrote to Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell by letter dated September 21, 2008 urging we take the time necessary to get the legislation right. By letter dated September 23, 2008, I wrote to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke asking a series of questions which have not yet been answered. Then by letter dated September 27, 2008, accompanied by a Senate floor statement, I made a series of suggestions to the executive and legislative negotiators. Again, there has been insufficient time for a reply. Copies of these letters are available on my website: http://specter.senate.gov.

Whenever we deviate from regular order which has been developed during more than 200 years of serving our country very well, we are on thin ice. On regular order, the legislative process customarily begins with a bill which members of Congress can study and analyze. After the legislation is in hand, there are hearings with proponents and opponents of the bill and an opportunity for members to examine, really cross examine, to get to the heart of the issues and alternatives. Regular order calls for a markup in the committee of jurisdiction going over the language line by line with an opportunity to make changes with votes on those proposed modifications. Then the committee files a report which is reviewed by members in advance of floor action where amendments can be offered and debate occurs. The action by each house is then subjected to further refinement by a conference committee which makes the presentment to the President for yet another line of review. The process used to finalize this legislation drastically shortcut regular order.

The legislation passed by the Senate is enormously improved over the first Paulson proposal. The $700 billion is not to be authorized immediately, but instead there are installments of $250 billion, $100 billion at the request of the president and $350 billion more subject to congressional objection, although the latter phase may be unconstitutional under INS v. Chadha, which requires following regular legislative process with passage by both houses and Presidential approval to overrule Presidential action and perhaps inferentially legislative conditions. For protection of the taxpayers, the proposal contains a provision that if the government does not regain its money after five years, the President would be required to submit a plan for compensating the Treasury “from entities benefiting from the programs.” While that provision is a far way from a guarantee or even assurances that such recovery legislation would be enacted, it gives some important comfort to the taxpayers’ position.

There are provisions for multiple layers of oversight including a Financial Stability Oversight Board that will meet monthly to oversee the program. The Treasury Secretary will be required to report to Congress on a regular basis on the actions taken, along with a detailed financial statement. These reports will include information on each of the agreements made, insurance contracts entered into, and the nature of the asset purchased and projected costs and liabilities. Additional oversight will be provided by the Comptroller General (reports to Congress), a new Inspector General (audits and quarterly reports), a congressionally-appointed oversight panel (market and regulatory review, and reports to Congress on the program and the effectiveness of foreclosure mitigation efforts), and by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) (cost estimates). A report will be required from the Secretary of the Treasury with an analysis of the current financial regulatory framework and recommendations for improvements.

There are substantial limitations on having benefits for entities which created the problem and limitations on executive pay. In cases where financial institutions sell troubled assets directly to the government with no competitive bidding and where the government receives a meaningful equity position, the legislation states that, until that equity stake is sold, executives would not get incentives “to take unnecessary and excessive risks” and would have to give up or repay bonuses or other incentives based on financial statements that “are later proven to be materially inaccurate.” The bill also would prohibit “any golden parachute payment to senior executives.”

The legislation is less stringent in provisions for financial institutions that sell their assets to the government through an auction. Such provisions would apply only to companies that sell more than $300 million in assets and would subject companies and employees to extra taxes. Corporations would not be able to deduct any salary or deferred compensation of more than $500,000, and top executives would face a 20% excise tax on golden parachute payments if they left for any reason other than retirement. In evaluating limitations on executive salaries, it is relevant to note that the Institute for Public Studies found that chief executives of large U.S. companies made an average of $10.5 million last year. That is more than 300 times the pay of the average worker.

The final proposal does provide for debt insurance, as advocated for by House Republicans, but leaves it to the Secretary of the Treasury to utilize that approach so it seems unlikely that it will be implemented in light of the fact that Secretary Paulson has bluntly stated his disagreement with it. Had there been floor amendments, Congress could have structured standards for utilization of debt insurance.

Had we followed regular order with an opportunity to propose amendments, consideration could have been given to my proposal, S.2133, which would have authorized the bankruptcy courts to restructure interest and scheduling of payments. The so-called variable rate mortgages have confronted many homeowners with the surprise that original payments, illustratively, of $1200 a month were soon raised to $2000 which resulted in defaults. Individualized examination by the bankruptcy courts might show misrepresentation or even fraud to justify revising the interest payments and rearranging the payment schedule. Or consideration could have been given to Senator Durbin’s proposed legislation, S.2136, which would have authorized the bankruptcy courts to reset the principal balance depending on the value of the home. I opposed that bill because I thought it would discourage future lending, and in the long run raise the cost to homebuyers. But at least, following regular order, there would have been an opportunity to consider Senator Durbin’s proposal as well as my suggested legislation.

The legislation contains authority for the Treasury Secretary to compensate foreign central banks under some conditions. It provides that troubled assets held by foreign financial authorities and banks are eligible for the Toxic Assets Recover Program (TARP) if the banks hold such assets as a result of having extended financing to financial institutions that have failed or defaulted. Had there been an opportunity for floor debate, that provision might have been sufficiently unpopular to be rejected or at least sharply circumscribed with conditions.

As a step to help keep borrowers in their homes, I proposed language found in Section 119 (b) of the bill to address the concern that some loan servicers have been reluctant to modify home mortgage loan terms because they fear litigation from investors who hold securities or other vehicles backed by the mortgage in question. The loan servicers have a legal duty to the investors to maximize the return on their investments. In testimony on December 6, 2007, before the House Committee on Financial Services, Mark Pearce, speaking on behalf of the conference of State Bank supervisors, discussed a meeting with the top 20 subprime servicers. He explained that “many of them brought up fear of investor lawsuits” as a hurdle to voluntary loan modification efforts. Because the rescue legislation encourages the government to seek voluntary loan modifications, it is important to remove any impediments to such modifications. To that end, the language provides a legal safe harbor for mortgage servicers making loan modifications, if the loan modifiers take reasonable mitigation steps, including accepting partial payments from homeowners.

On reforms to prevent a recurrence of this crisis, we need to question whether the rating agencies adequately analyzed mortgage-backed securities before issuing investment-grade ratings. These agencies appear to have failed. In July of 2007, when it became apparent that ratings issued by the big three rating agencies-Moody’s, S&P and Fitch- could not be relied upon, I urged the relevant committees to look into the ratings that those agencies issued in recent years regarding mortgage-backed securities. Financial institutions that issue asset-backed securities obtain ratings for such securities. The failure to issue reliable ratings misrepresented the facts and fed the ability of financial institutions to tout the value of securities even though their value was declining. Congress and the regulators need to take up the rating agencies issue, and consider whether ratings agencies that have utterly failed to detect and reflect the risks associated with the securities they were rating should be accorded any reliance or role in our financial system. Some have suggested they should be regulated and we may need to consider that.

In addition, Congress and the regulators should review “off-balance sheet” transactions and leveraging. There should be a close examination on whether banks are sufficiently transparent and providing accurate accounting that truly reflects risk and leverage. Similarly there should be a review on Credit Default Swaps (CDS), which are privately traded derivatives contracts that have ballooned to make up what is a $2 trillion dollar market according to the Bank of International Settlements. They are a fast-growing major type of financial derivative. Many experts assert that they have played a critical role in this financial crisis as various financial players believed that they were safe because they thought CDS fully insured or protected them, but the CDS market is unregulated and no one really knows what exposure everyone else has from the CDS contracts. Consideration should be given to subjecting all over-the-counter derivatives onto a regulated exchange similar to that used by listed options in the equity markets.

Overleveraging has been a contributing factor in the turmoil that now threatens our financial institutions. We have seen a massive expansion of the practice of leveraged financial institutions (banks, investment banks, and hedge funds) making investments with borrowed money. In turn, they borrow more money by using the assets they just purchased as collateral. This sequence is continued again and again. The financial system, in its efforts to deleverage, is contracting credit. They must guard against future losses by holding more capital. Deleveraging is leading to difficulty on Main Street for individuals seeking to get a mortgage or buy a car. If a financial institution is able to unload its toxic assets onto the government, it will again be able to resume its lending activities that are crucial for economic growth in the United States. Unfortunately, much of the financial crisis has arisen from miscalculations of the risks involved with purchasing large amounts of securities backed by subprime mortgages and other toxic assets. We now see a situation where we are not just talking about a handful of firms. This is a widespread problem that should be addressed by this package and in future reforms of our financial regulatory structure.

In addition, the package crafted by Senate leaders includes two notable changes from the version that was rejected by the House on Monday. It includes a tax package that was previously passed in the Senate by a vote of 93-2 on September 23, 2008, but has since been rejected by the House in a dispute over revenue offsets. It includes tax incentives for wind, solar, biomass, and other alternative energy technologies. It also includes critically important relief from the Alternative Minimum Tax, which threatens to raise the tax liability of over 22 million unintended filers in 2008 if no action is taken. Finally, the package includes a host of provisions that either expired in 2007 or are set to expire in 2008, including the research and development tax credit, rail line improvement incentives, and quicker restaurant and retail depreciation schedules. I supported the Senate-passed tax extenders bill because it struck a responsible balance on the issue of revenue raising offsets.

The package also includes a provision to temporarily increase the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insurance limit to $250,000. Currently, the FDIC provides deposit insurance which guarantees the safety of checking and savings deposits in member banks, up to $100,000 per depositor per bank. Member banks pay a fee to participate. The current $100,000 limit has been unchanged since 1980 despite inflation. This approach is supported by both Senator McCain and Senator Obama, by House Republicans, and by the FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair. Raising the cap could stem a potential run on deposits by bank customers, particularly businesses, who fear losing their money. Such fears contributed to the collapse of Washington Mutual and Wachovia Bank.

Congress has been called upon to make the best of a very bad situation. Careful oversight of the authority given to the Treasury Department will need to be undertaken, and a review of our regulatory structure will be necessary as we move forward.

Again, thank you for writing. The concerns of my constituents are of great importance to me, and I rely on you and other Pennsylvanians to inform me of your views. If you require assistance with a federal agency, please contact my state office in your area. The contact information can be found on my website at specter.senate.gov.


Arlen Specter