The Battle Lines Have Formed in the Politics of the Credit and Mortgage Crisis

The battle lines have formed in the political fight over the federal government’s response to the credit and mortgage crisis.

There are now two clear, and clearly different, strategies being put forward as the federal government attempts to deal with the credit and mortgage crisis — or is it the real estate crisis, the housing crisis, the foreclosure crisis, the liquidity crisis, the international banking crisis, the securities crisis, or all of the above?

One strategy relies on persuasion (and the credit industry’s recognition of group self-interest) and the other on force (and the belief that without the threat of force, individual self-interest will trump group self-interest every time).

The persuasion strategy belongs to the Bush administration, including the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets, and a majority of the Republicans in the House and Senate.

Their basic approach is to use their bully pulpit, as well as some incentives, to attempt to persuade the banks, lenders, mortgage brokers, and others in the credit industry to regulate and reform themselves.

As Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson put it, the Bush administration and the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets (which includes, in addition to the Treasury Secretary, the heads of the Federal Reserve Board, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission) want “to not create a burden” on the players in the credit industry.

They’re hoping that the industry will see that their own self-interest requires them to take the actions that the administration suggests in order to restore confidence and stability in the credit market.

For the most part, the Working Group’s recommendations would not require legislation, but would be implemented by the credit industry itself.

As the New York Times testily observed, the administration’s program, announced with such fanfare today by Treasury Secretary Paulson, “amounted to little more than demands that investors and financial institutions take greater care in analyzing and managing their risks.”

On the other side of the aisle, and from a different ideological perspective, the Democrats are pushing an agenda that relies far more on the force of government imposed regulations and the concomitant threat of legal sanctions.

The Democrats’ thinking is premised on the belief that even with the credit market in crisis, and even with the general recognition within the credit industry that new rules are necessary for the good of the game, the individual players will adhere to these rules only when they are forced to do so by federal regulators with the threat of punishment.

The Democrats are probably also thinking that a “tough” approach to the banks and the brokers will play well with the voters.

What will happen — will the persuaders or the punishers win out in the end?

Our view is that in the short run — that is, until after the November elections — the persuaders will stand their ground, even in the face of election year attacks from the Democrats, and resist the increasingly insistent calls for unleashing an armed federal force against the credit industry.

If the financial crisis worsens significantly, we would then expect that the Republican persuaders will have to make more concessions regarding legislation and federal sanctions, although we would still expect that these will be minimal.

On the other hand, if the Democrats win in November, persuasion will be dead and war will be declared.  Force would be used against the financial markets and credit industry on a major scale.

We could then see a comprehensive and sweeping legislative overall of the entire credit and banking industry even more extenstive than the Securities and Exchange Act.

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