The general arguments concerning the bailout have gone something along the lines of
Anti Bailout : "The taxpayers should not have to foot a 700 billion dollar bill to bail out Wall Street"
Pro Bailout : "But if taxpayers do not bail out Wall Street the economy will fall apart and those same taxpayers will be hurt"
If we could be sure the bailout would work the second argument has some merit. While the bailout will certainly help the banks, the problem is we have almost no guarantee the bailout will help the real estate market and the general economy.
First let's look at some recent history of how the Fed has tried to help the troubled real estate market. The Fed usually attempts to lower mortgage interest rates to help the real estate market. By lowering mortgage rates houses become more attractive to buyers. In addition, with lower mortgage rates home buyers can buy more expensive houses with the same monthly payment. Therefore lower rates can help stop falling home prices. So it was not surprising in early 2008 the Fed cut the Fed rate. In normal markets lowering the Fed rate helps banks and causes them to lower mortgage interest rates. And following the Fed cut mortgage rates dropped to 5.5 for a period of time. If they had stayed down we might have averted some of the problems with the current housing crisis. But instead a few weeks later rates had jumped backed up to 6.2. Basically banks said thanks for the lower fed rates but we are not going to alter our mortgage rates.
In fact, over the next few months mortgage rates rose all the way to 6.6. The next big move was acquiring Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. This was one of the largest government takeovers in US history. The move was risky because the government was providing insurance for trillions in loans. And it initially had a positive effect on the housing market. But a few weeks later AIG ran into financial problems. This dominated the news cycle. It was almost as if the government takeover of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae never happened.
So the previous moves the federal government has made to stop the financial crisis have not worked. Should the 700 billion dollar bailout be different? It could certainly help the housing markets. But it might not. Lets look at why.
One of the benefits of the 700 billion dollar bailout has nothing to do with banks. It has more to do with perception on Main Street. The hope is that the bailout will restore confidence in the real estate market on Main Street.
In politics people often talk about news cycles covering up the last news cycle. Basically the last piece of news stays in people's minds until the next piece of news comes along. The Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac news cycle (and the billions the government will spend on it) only lasted until the next piece of news, which was about a week. While the 700 billion dollar bailout should restore some confidence in the real estate market, that confidence might only last until the next piece of news. And with things happening so quickly that news cycle might not last very long and given the current market the next piece of news will probably be negative.
The other benefit of the 700 billion dollar bailout is that the government is hoping to influence banks to start lending again. The idea is that by taking billions in toxic loans off the books for banks they will start lending again. The problem is that their is no guarantee this will happen. In fact, when the Fed lowered rates banks said thanks but decided that prospects for the housing market looked negative and continued to add restrictions to lending. In a similar fashion banks could say thanks for the 700 billion but we continue to see negative prospects in the housing market and therefore we will continue to have strict lending practices. But thanks for the 700 billion taxpayers.