Americans cannot permit free enterprise to reign just when CEOs and companies are making piles of money only to have it replaced by socialism when they are teetering on disaster.
It was the kind of deal you might expect to see among business and government cronies in China. A large bank gets into trouble. Another one comes in and is given an exclusive opportunity to buy the good assets at fire sale prices with the state agreeing to take over billions in liabilities. The head of the ruling party gives his blessing to the deal on the advice of the top regime official who, 18 months earlier, headed an investment bank himself.
Except this was not China. It happened on Wall Street, ground zero for free market capitalism, or so it is claimed. JPMorgan struck a sweetheart deal with the Fed in taking over the remains of Bear Stearns. While its demise comes as no great surprise after Friday’s run on the bank, it appears that no other institution was given the opportunity to work out a competing offer or at least one that is supported by the government and the Fed. President George W. Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, Jr. approved the deal.
At $2 a share and with 7,000 to be laid off, Bear Stearns employees will call it a betrayal. The firm’s top management and inside directors, after all, have made hundreds of millions in compensation and bonuses in the past few years and it would not be surprising if arrangements have been made for some to walk away with a tidy severance/change of control package. JPMorgan will call it a good buy. Still others will call it a bailout that gives a level of comfort to the financial sector which otherwise might not prevail and may not be deserved. But in truth, this deal is hypocrisy on stilts.
When it comes to the wave of titanic bonuses, platinum parachutes and multimillion-dollar pensions for its CEOs that have swept across Wall Street and elsewhere in business, America is told it is the free market that sets the rates. Boards are merely responding to these larger economic forces over which they have no control. The same is said about enforcing provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the Enron era package of reforms which corporate luminaries have argued overly restricts American capital and makes it tougher to compete. But when it comes to dealing with the mistakes and misjudgments of those CEOs and boards, it is government that Wall Street and others call on to intervene and save the day. The supreme, or perhaps subprime, irony, of course, is that the same financial institutions that created the problems with their overly complex and exotic investment vehicles which they themselves did not fully comprehend and cannot today accurately value are demanding relief from the Fed and anywhere else they can find it.
Ironic, too, is the fact that Americans, as consumers, investors and members of pension plans, are the ones who actually pay for the monster compensation that has come to symbolize the modern boardroom. And when the lure of great rewards prompts CEOs and boards to take risks that later prove calamitous, as the subprime fiasco demonstrates, it is the American taxpayer who is asked to pay again through the inflation-creating printing of money or the taking on of more public debt. There are many unanswered questions concerning the implications of what the Fed and the White House have sanctioned in the Bear Stearns bailout, and in the larger issue of exactly how much is being committed to prop up other financial institutions -and at what cost.
Americans cannot permit free enterprise to reign just when CEOs and companies are making piles of money only to have it replaced by socialism when they are teetering on disaster. They are entitled to more than being relegated to the position of prisoners of irony conveniently contrived by corporate and public leaders, while being stuck with a multibillion-dollar price tag for the privilege.