Investors to Fed: Thanks for nothing
The reckless are getting relief from Bernanke while the prudent are paying the price, argues Fortune's Allan Sloan.
(Fortune Magazine) -- One of the core principles of the U.S. medical profession is the Hippocratic oath, the most famous part of which is "Do no harm." It's too bad that the governors of the Federal Reserve Board don't have to take such a pledge when they assume office, because their recent interest rate cut has done a lot of harm to those of us who've managed our finances prudently.
Even though the Fed's stated reason for cutting short-term interest rates by half a point was to help keep the economy from falling into recession, anyone who's been paying attention knows that a major motivation - if not the major motivation - was to try to calm the turbulence that has been roiling the markets since August.
The players in the biggest trouble, of course, were the ones who'd taken the biggest fliers in junk mortgages, ultra-risky leveraged buyouts, and other financial esoterica that proved to be malignant.
The stock market, which had been begging for a bailout and hasn't ever seen an interest rate cut that it didn't like, responded to the Fed's half-pointer by running prices up. Ben Bernanke, the Street decided, is just what the doctor ordered.
However, if you look at the financial markets' overall reaction to the Fed move - not at just the stock market's reaction - you realize that as a result of the cut, those of us who keep score in dollars and didn't need to be bailed out are less wealthy than we were in terms of anything other than our home currency.
Why? Because the rate cut contributed heavily to the dollar's recent sharp drop in the currency markets - parity with the Canadian dollar, for God's sake! - and to the price spike in hard assets like gold, silver, copper, and oil. So our wealth, relative to these other things, has diminished.
And wait, there's more. Even though the Fed has cut short-term rates, long-term rates, which it doesn't control, have risen in reaction to the cut. So whatever economic benefits may flow from lower shortterm rates will be partly offset by the rise in long rates, which are at least as important to the economy as short rates.
Finally, consider this. Even though Bernanke's cut may mean that some junk mortgages will reset at lower rates, the cost of large, high-quality fixed-rate mortgages, which are tied to long rates, will be higher than they'd otherwise be. (Yeah, penalize the people who are prudent - way to go!)
When I talk about prudent people being penalized, I don't mean just the decline in their wealth in terms of anything other than the dollar. I'm also talking about the price paid by investors who wouldn't play the subprime mortgage game and thus got lower returns than players who took bigger risks.
The folks who didn't get carried away (and avoided huge losses) look smart today - but they looked prudish and foolish until the housing bubble finally popped.
Look, as I've said before - and will probably say again - the Fed's job is to protect the financial system. It doesn't dare let a giant financial institution fail, lest it drag down other big players and trigger cascading failures.
But if we taxpayers are going to bail out the likes of Countrywide Financial (Charts, Fortune 500), even indirectly, I'd like us to get a market return on our money. That would reward us for the risk we're taking and seriously penalize companies that so overindulge that they need Dr. Ben's Magical Money Elixir.
Let's get the Treasury to negotiate deals like Bank of America's (Charts, Fortune 500) with Countrywide in August, when the bank put up $2 billion and got a high current coupon and a below-market conversion option.
The Treasury could do what it did years ago with Chrysler and get stock-purchase warrants in return for guaranteeing loans to companies that we can't afford to let fail. The idea would be to reward U.S. taxpayers and send a message to gunslingers without risking a worldwide financial collapse.
This different way of thinking won't cure Wall Street of its "heads I win, tails I get bailed out" syndrome - but it will reduce the number of bailouts and mitigate the harm they now do to those of us who haven't overreached. If Hippocrates were in the investment business, I'm sure he'd totally approve.