Liar’s Poker

When Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson went to Capitol Hill last week, it was like a scene out of Michael Lewis’s book Liar’s Poker.

In the book, Lewis describes a time when the chairman of the board of Salomon Brothers confronts John Meriwether, a member of the board, and challenges him to a game of Liar’s Poker — a game similar to poker but played with the serial numbers on dollar bills — “One hand, one million dollars, no tears.” Meriwether then ups the ante. “Ten million dollars. No tears,” he tells the chairman, forcing him to back down as the stakes were just too high.

Many traders on The Street felt that Liar’s Poker was a good substitute for trading. They would ask themselves, according to Lewis, “Is this a smart risk?” and “Does he have any idea what he’s doing?”

Bernanke and Paulson told Congress if they didn’t pass the administration’s $700,000,000,000 Wall Street Bailout plan — in the next week — the country was facing a depression, credit markets would dry up and businesses would be unable to pay their workers. And it would all be Congress’s fault.

The economic stakes were just too high for Congress as well. Few, if any, on the Hill have the background those two have, and no one wanted to challenge them on the facts. That wasn’t too surprising.

What was astounding, for the first few days of this crisis, was that virtually no one on Capitol Hill had an alternative proposal or plan. You can accept that there is a crisis in confidence or in credit and still believe there is an alternative to having the government spend nearly a trillion dollars to buy “toxic debt.”

One of the lone exceptions was Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R – Texas), who almost immediately expressed skepticism about the solution being offered. Hensarling is particularly influential as the head of the group of conservatives in the House called the Republican Study Committee.

Over the weekend he rallied others to take a hard look at what was being proposed and challenged them to come up with alternatives. There were others as well: Reps. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) and Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Sens. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) and Jim DeMint (R–S.C.). However, the dissenters were few and far between.

This economic episode is not yet over, and the Hensarlings of the world have not yet won the fight to be responsible with the taxpayers’ money. However, when über-investor Warren Buffett bought $5 billion of preferred stock of the investment house Goldman Sachs yesterday, it provided a path for what Congress could do to be more responsible with tax money and also provide an injection of cash and confidence into the markets.

Rather than the government purchasing nearly worthless assets for above-market rates, they could instead purchase shares of the companies that are struggling, just as Buffet did. The taxpayer would own something of value, not give away something for nearly nothing, and the shareholders would be the ones who have to take the financial hit, rather than the taxpayers.

Whatever Congress does over the coming few days, they need to have a significant imprint in the crisis plan and not simply be a rubber stamp, nor a brick wall.

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