Sept. 16 (Bloomberg) — Paulson. Merrill Lynch. Lehman. Bernanke. Names are what investors start talking about at moments like this. Names, the faith is, will rescue Wall Street and by extension the U.S. economy. When a market crash is big enough, people are too panicked to think about the technicalities of reform. They think about the names they are losing and the names who, they hope, will save the day.
Names certainly have their uses in tense moments like this one. But only rules can bring the markets back in the longer run.
Consider the analogy most mentioned as markets take in Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's decision to cut off Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.: the Panic of 1907. Then a name, J.P. Morgan, pulled fellow bankers and the Treasury together, putting forward a plan to supply cash so banks wouldn't fail.
The Lehman of the day was Knickerbocker Trust. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost about half its value, and Knickerbocker Trust faded. But the Wall Streeters succeeded. Men, it was said, had saved the Street.
But what made World War I and the 1920s more manageable was the existence of new institutions, not men. The Federal Reserve Act became law in 1913. The Fed's initial structure was imperfect, a fact that would become more than apparent in the early 1930s. But the Fed did help stabilize the economy in the critical intervening decade and a half since 1913.
Then new names could rise to take the place of the old in the U.S. economy. Among the most important of these was Henry Ford.
Today, too, men have played heroic roles. Paulson will go down in history as the Treasury secretary who could say "no."
But maybe it was too many heroes on the stage that got us to this point. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan assumed the rank of deity in the last decade of his tenure. In hindsight, his task would have been simpler and more transparent had he not been required to advance the Fed's two conflicting mandates: keeping employment high and inflation low.
Another set of big names, Moody's Investors Service and Standard & Poor's, were at the heart of the buddy-buddy system that led to problematic credit ratings.
And while Paulson stood firm with Lehman, he has courted conflict by formatting Treasury's takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as a conservatorship, a legal structure to keep the businesses open.
Conservatorship, as Peter Wallison of the American Enterprise Institute has pointed out, suggests a postponement of the reckoning of Fannie's and Freddie's value. Had Paulson insisted on a receivership instead, the shock of Fannie's and Freddie's takeover by the government might have been greater at first. As markets have since shown, even conservatorship didn't provide stability.
At least three rules-based reforms cry out for implementation:
First, no more bailouts. Otherwise, it is already clear, the auto companies will be next. The airlines are also in line.
Heck, you can even give this reform a name: The Lehman Rule — and then hope that the Treasury abides by it. One reason the Dow drooped during Paulson's press briefing yesterday was that he seemed to be indicating he might break the rule soon.
Second, clean up the rating system so that numbers speak something closer to the truth.
Death of Banker
Third, make the U.S. more competitive by lowering corporate taxes and other levies so foreign firms will want to fill our new vacuum. The worst thing about John McCain's new "crisis" advertisement is that it suggests a strong man — and not a strong country — is the answer. Here President George W. Bush's response, that he had faith in our economy, was more useful.
Back in the 1990s, when life had a much different texture, the financial historian Ron Chernow published a book called "The Death of the Banker." His thesis was that market securitization had replaced the need for the individual relationship with one's trusted adviser at the desk.
There will be some now who call for the return of the banker. Sure, we need heroes at this hour. But it's probably best to keep that old fellow in the morgue. Better rules will lay the quickest path to recovery, and keep markets alive.
(Amity Shlaes, a senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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