On July 13th Hank Paulson, America’s treasury secretary, stood on his department’s steps like some emerging-market finance minister, and unveiled an emergency plan to save Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two mortgage giants that owe or guarantee $5.2 trillion. Two days later, Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, put the fear of God into the markets, warning Congress of a foul amalgam of inflation and economic distress.Agreed.
The immediate lesson is that the financial crisis, nearly a year old, is far from over. Gloomy investors are gunning for banks of all types. In America the prices of houses and shares are falling, and the cost of food and energy has soared. Consumers are almost certain to cut back. The euro-area economy may have shrunk in the latest quarter. Central banks around the world are having to raise interest rates to curb inflation, and the dollar looks vulnerable. Even if the downturn proves less sharp than pessimists fear, it is likely to last longer than optimists hope.
Freddie and Fannie have changed that equation only slightly. Their importance lies in what their rescue says about the financial system. At Fannie and Freddie—and, shockingly, at the investment banks—the profits were privatised, but the risks were socialised. One Republican senator complained that he thought he had “woken up in France”.
Monday, July 21, 2008
From the July 19-25th Economist: