Austan Goolsbee versus Phillip Swagel on whether there are bailouts in the Financial regulation bill

Phillip Swagel has this:

President Obama’s approach, as embodied in Democratic Senator Chris Dodd’s bill, is for discretion and thus for bailouts. Top administration officials state that they will impose losses on counterparties such as lenders to a failing firm. The reality, however, is that the Senate bill gives the government discretion, without a vote of Congress, to put money into a failing firm to pay off creditors. Shareholders will take losses but creditors can benefit from government-provided funds. Regardless of the administration’s intentions, markets participants will understand that the Senate financial regulation bill allows for bailouts, and this will give rise to riskier behavior that in turn makes future bailouts more likely.

A particularly misleading claim from the administration is that the bill is not a bailout because any losses would be recouped through taxes on banks after the fact. The intervention itself is the essence of the bailout, not whether there are losses to the government. Imagine if the Troubled Asset Relief Program was to end up with a profit—not just recouping the money put into firms over the past two years but actually making a return for taxpayers. No one would suggest that the TARP is then somehow not a bailout. Recouping funds after the fact might be a good way to protect taxpayers, but it is preposterous to claim that this makes the Dodd bill anything other than a bailout. The ability of the government to put money into a failing firm and make payments to counterparties at its discretion is what makes the Dodd proposal a permanent bailout authority, not the issue of who pays after the fact.

Moreover, the discretion given to the government in the Senate proposal opens the door to undesirable actions such as allowing the administration to write checks to favored parties. This concern is not theoretical: such mischief took place in the bankruptcies of Chrysler and General Motors, as the two auto companies were used as conduits to transfer billions of dollars from TARP to the president’s political supporters. . . .

The Dodd bill allows two forms of a bailout, since the government can put cash directly into a failing firm or guarantee its debt. The Dodd proposal is a bailout bill, plain and simple. . . .

Here is Goolsbee's claim.

TAPPER: . . . Wouldn't that actually stop too-big-to-fail by preventing these banks from being too big? And why isn't the administration behind that?

GOOLSBEE: Well, the president is totally committed and it's one of his key principles that we're going to end too-big-to-fail, we're going to end the bailout era that began under the last president, for good. That's not going to happen anymore. We can open -- we're open to negotiating details obviously as we start getting into it. They're complicated. Some of these financial risks are more like worms where you could chop them in half, but it doesn't kill them, it just gives you two different worms. Bear Stearns, AIG, they weren't the biggest, they were just the most dangerous, and we've got to come at this from every side. Look, we're open to looking at ending too-big-to-fail on the size angle, on the what risky investments they're allowed to take, looking at the derivatives component so that AIG-like, they can't threaten to blow up the whole world because of -- because they have some of this $600 trillion pool of derivatives that we know virtually nothing about, that are in the dark. All of that ends when we sign this bill. If you look at the bill and take a step back -- I don't know much about the legislative strategies that are going on in the Senate. They are important. I do know that the president has laid out what this bill does, is we're going to end bailouts, we're going to hold accountable the people that get into the messes. So if they get in trouble, they fail. All we're going to do is pay funeral expenses, and we're going to have the strongest consumer protections ever in this country. . . .

It seems pretty clear that Swagel has the better of this argument. Of course, Obama claims that he will be ending bailouts.

Regulatory overhaul legislation working its way through Congress will end taxpayer-funded bailouts "once and for all," President Barack Obama said Saturday.

Mr. Obama used his weekly radio address to build on the administration's argument that lawmakers need to quickly pass the most wide-ranging changes to financial market oversight since the Great Depression.

"That's how we'll help to put an end to the cycles of boom and bust that we've seen," Mr. Obama said. "And that's how ... we'll not only revive the economy, but help to rebuild it stronger than ever before." . . .

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