On Tuesday and Wednesday, Federal reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, a scholar of the epic financial meltdown of the Great Depression, and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, a survivor of more recent Wall Street crises, told Congress of their latest efforts to rescue the financial sector. If Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and his deputy Lawrence Summers were known as the Committee to Save the World during the financial crises of the 1990s, today's duo may go down as the Committee to Save Wall Street From Itself. For the past several months, the Fed and the Treasury Department have pulled all-nighters dealing with three-alarm fires, from the demise of Bear Stearns in March to the rising concerns over the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Fannie and Freddie play a huge role in the mortgage business by lending cash and guaranteeing loans made by others. But with the spread of the mortgage crises their stocks have plummeted in recent weeks, and questions have been raised as to whether the government would do what it implied it would all along when it established the two government sponsored organizations: stand behind their debt. Bernanke and Paulson gave an emphatic "yes," as they described to occasionally hostile Congress members their plans to allow Fannie and Freddie to borrow money from the Federal Reserve, and to empower the Treasury Department to buy (and buoy) the companies' stock and stand behind their $5.2 trillion in debt. The prospective moves, along with some slightly better-than-expected earnings reports from banks last week, calmed the markets. The price for this desperately needed action is likely to be more regulation and oversight. Will the crisis inspire a fundamental restructuring of the vital, symbiotic relationship between Washington and Wall Street, as happened during the New Deal? Or will these responses prove a temporary blip, as when the government bailed out the savings and loan industry in the late 1980s? In short, is this 1933 or 1989?