Wall Street bailout shouldn't be a mulligan

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As this is being written, Congress is under pressure to immediately pass an unprecedented financial bailout plan for financial firms. These companies have been on a years-long real estate binge. The i-bankers playing this dangerous leverage game have been routinely rewarded each year with seven- or eight- figure bonuses, on top of their seven- or eight-figure salaries. As the saying goes, nice work if you can get it.

However, the party is clearly over, and American-style capitalism appears to be under more duress than at any time since the Depression. It remains to be seen how deeply this downturn will cut into the eldercare sector. But CCRCs (continuing care retirement communities) and independent living (which typically rely on residents to sell their homes before moving in) are already feeling the pinch. As 401Ks become 301Ks and millions of people are increasingly feeling like lemons in a vice, there is an understandable call for immediate action to stop the bleeding.

The Bush administration and congressional leaders appear to be close to agreement on a historic $700 billion bailout for financial firms. Reports note that tight oversight and new efforts to help homeowners at foreclosure risk are key components. But an obvious, common-sense element appears to be missing. Where is the incentive for the same people who almost single-handedly brought the nation's economy to its knees to be held more accountable (or at least, less reckless) going forward?

I'm not convinced that the answer to this economic crisis is stifling regulation, or even capped salaries for the perps. But I'd like to see the beneficiaries of this unprecedented bailout have a little skin in the game. However, the plan that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr. and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke are foisting on Congress is essentially what golf duffers call a mulligan. In other words, it's a freebie to the tune of nearly $1 trillion.

So here's my suggestion: We taxpayers will cut a relief check for $700 billion (or whatever the required amount to get the markets stable again happens to be). In exchange, we'll follow the direction Sweden took when it faced an eerily similar crisis in 1992: require banks receiving the benefit to write down losses and issue warrants to the government.

This way, when distressed assets are sold, the profits will go to taxpayers. And the government will be able to recoup more money later by selling its shares in the companies as well. That may not be an ideal solution, but it's far better than what's now on the table.

Yet extracting equity from banks as a price for their rescue is not receiving serious consideration. Why not? Our chances of recouping losses are practically nil if we simply allow banks to write off their “what-the-heck-were-they-thinking?” investments. With real consequences at stake, they might be a little smarter about the deals they cut in the future. At the very least, they'll probably be more reluctant to seek our assistance after their next bender.

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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.