02 October 2008

How To Solve A Crisis? Ask Steve Forbes

The one-time candidate for POTUS, Steve Forbes, writes in the latest issues of Forbes magazine about what should be done to avoid a Modern Great Depression.
The first prescription for a cure is to formally strengthen the dollar and announce it publicly. A year ago August the price of gold was more than $650 per ounce. In late 2003 it had breached $400. The Fed should declare that its goal for gold is around $500 to $550. That would stabilize the buck--and stability is essential if animal spirits and risk taking are to revive.

Also of immediate urgency is for regulators to suspend any mark-to-market rules for long-term assets. Short-term assets should not be given arbitrary values unless there are actual losses. The mark-to-market mania of regulators and accountants is utterly destructive. It is like fighting a fire with gasoline.

Think of the mark-to-market madness this way: You buy a house for $350,000 and take out a $250,000 30-year fixed-rate mortgage. Your income is more than adequate to make the monthly payments. But under mark-to-market rules the bank could call up and say that if your house had to be sold immediately, it would fetch maybe $200,000 in such a distressed sale. The bank would then tell you that you owe $250,000 on a house worth only $200,000 and to please fork over the $50,000 immediately or else lose the house.

Absurd? Obviously. But that's what, in effect, is happening today. Thus institutions with long-term assets are having to drastically reprice them downward. And so the crisis feeds on itself.

The SEC should immediately reverse its foolish decision to get rid of the so-called uptick rule in short-selling. That would provide a small road bump to the short-selling that's helping to destroy financial institutions.

At the same time the SEC should promulgate an emergency rule (which we thought was already the rule): No naked short-selling. That is, you have to own or borrow shares in a company before you can short it. The rules should make clear that short-sellers must have ample documentation proving they truly possess the shares at the time of the short sale. Otherwise, each violation will result in heavy fines. That wouldn't be a road bump but a wall of Everest-like proportions. Regulators should also be told to instruct banks to keep their solvent customers solvent. The last thing the economy needs right now is for the banking system to seize up.

The federal government should also consider setting up a new Resolution Trust Corp., which was devised during the savings and loan crisis nearly 20 years ago as a dumping ground for bad S&L assets. Today's bad assets could then be liquidated in an orderly way. And, finally, the financial industry should be encouraged to create new exchanges for exotic instruments. This would result in the standardization of these things, which would mean more transparency.

(h/t Scott L.)

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