HOW many votes in Congress will the latest financial upheaval change? That is the calculus underway in Washington, D.C., after the House of Representatives defeated the proposed $700 billion mortgage-rescue plan by 228 to 205 on Monday September 29th. Democrats backed it by 140 votes to 95, while Republicans opposed it by 133 to 65.
Bankers had been under no illusions that the tweaked Paulson plan would cure all the financial system’s ills. But most had seen it as a step in the right direction, and had expected it to pass. Its rejection sent stockmarkets into freefall. The Dow Jones Industrial Average finished down by 7%, and suffered its biggest-ever points loss. Perhaps fittingly in an economy that is in danger of sliding into depression, the only stock among the 500 in the S&P index that finished higher was Campbell’s Soup. The S&P closed 29% below its peak. Reflecting fears that consumer demand will wilt, shares of Apple Computer, creator of the iPhone, fell by 18%. The rout continued in Asia, but shares rebounded in Europe on Tuesday morning on hopes that the bill would eventually pass.
But credit markets, already dysfunctional, were even closer to breaking point. Banks grew even less willing to lend to each other on Monday and Tuesday, and money-market funds fled anything with a whiff of risk. Some corporations are struggling to roll-over commercial paper, short-term debt issued to finance working capital, payroll payments and the like. In an effort to keep money markets from drying up, the Federal Reserve has doubled the size of a vital lending facility for banks, to $300 billion, and expanded agreements with other central banks that funnel dollars to lenders abroad.
These unprecedented injections are aimed at easing concerns that weak participants in the interbank market will fail to honour their debts. But many banks are now assumed to be not only illiquid but insolvent. Last week Washington Mutual, a thrift saddled with rotten mortgages, became the largest-ever American lender to fail. And on Monday Citigroup agreed to buy most of the assets of Wachovia, an even bigger American bank, in a deal brokered by regulators. The pain has suddenly grown much more intense in Europe, too.
The no vote was a big blow to George Bush, Hank Paulson, the treasury secretary, and Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman. They gave dire warnings of the consequences of an unchecked crisis, in hopes of persuading Congress to approve an unusually aggressive and early fiscal intervention. (It took many more years for a systemic response to widespread failures of American savings and loan banks in the 1980s). But because the intervention is relatively early, voters have yet to see much impact from the crisis on their lives. “On Monday morning ÂÂÂ . the sun came up and a lot of people went to work, and [they] couldn’t understand what this panic was in Washington,” Paul Kanjorski, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, told Mr Paulson last week. It was far easier for voters to relate to $700 billion of their taxes being spent on a mess in Wall Street.
Party leaders largely agreed with the diagnosis, as did the presidential candidates of both parties. But polls showed that voters were split; constituent phone calls and e-mails ran heavily against the bill. Administration officials and party leaders are back at work trying to find a way to get at least 12 members to switch their vote; the betting both on Wall Street and in Washington, DC, is they will succeed. (Passage in the Senate is considered less problematic.) But it should not be taken for granted. Without amendments, anyone who changes his vote will face fierce criticism when he seeks re-election. Any amendments to appease Republicans could cost Democratic support, and vice-versa.
“You can’t let one day’s trading dictate public policymaking,” argues Scott Garrett, a New Jersey Republican and member of the Republican Study Committee, a block of conservative members who led opposition to the bill. “The market’s going to be a factor, but we’re looking at the larger picture.” Recalcitrant Republicans would rather see a programme to sell insurance to banks against mortgage defaults, rather than buying assets from them. The Treasury strongly opposes this approach. But there may be other grounds for compromise, such as relaxing mark-to-market accounting or extending the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s guarantee of a bank’s liabilities to more than just the first $100,000 of each customer’s deposits. Other proposals include giving banks more time to deduct mortgage-related operating losses from future taxable profits, letting companies repatriate foreign profits tax-free and improving the tax treatment of losses sustained by banks on their holdings of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac stock.
For their part, more Democrats might back the proposal if the administration also agreed to more fiscal stimulus, in particular public-works spending, or taking any profits on the TARP to low-income housing. A deal may be possible, but time is short: legislators are itching to return to their districts to campaign, and investors’ appetite for risk is ebbing fast. The House is not expected to reconvene before Thursday, to accommodate the Jewish new year.
The House vote also represented a stinging rejection of John McCain, the Republican nominee. Mr McCain suspended his campaign last week for two days, citing the financial crisis, and flew to Washington, DC, to help craft a solution to it. His main task was to persuade reluctant House Republicans to back their own president. In the event they voted against the deal made by their own leadership by two to one. The humiliation meted out to Mr McCain is intense.
Amid the efforts to put the deal back together, some small hope remains that not all is lost. What is unlikely to help is the atmosphere of bitterness and recrimination that is pervading Capitol Hill. With some justification, the Democrats are aggrieved to find that they supported Mr Bush’s bill while his own party did not. But the Republicans blame the Democratic speaker, Nancy Pelosi, for making a stupidly partisan speech shortly before the vote in which she poured scorn on the Republicans she is trying to court. A lot of bridges will have to be built in a short span of time.