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Treasury Would Emerge With Vast New Power

Floyd Norris|The New York Times
Monday, 29 Sep 2008 | 10:12 AM ET

During its weeklong deliberations, Congress made many changes to the Bush administration’s original proposal to bail out the financial industry, but one overarching aspect of the initial plan that remains is the vast discretion it gives to the Treasury secretary.

Henry Paulson
AP
Henry Paulson

The draft legislation, which will be put to a House vote on Monday, gives Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and his successor extraordinary power to decide how the $700 billion bailout fund is spent. For example, if he thinks it wise, he may buy not only mortgages and mortgage-backed securities, but any other financial instrument.

To be sure, the Treasury secretary’s powers have been tempered since the original Bush administration proposal, which would have given Mr. Paulson nearly unfettered control over the program. There are now two separate oversight panels involved, one composed of legislators and the other including regulatory and administration officials.

Still, Mr. Paulson can choose to buy from any financial institution that does business in the United States, or from pension funds, with wide discretion over what he will buy and how much he will pay. Under most circumstances, banks owned by foreign governments are not eligible for the money, but under some conditions, the secretary can choose to bail out foreign central banks.

Under the bill, the Treasury is to buy the securities at prices he deems appropriate. Mr. Paulson may set prices through auctions but is not required to do so.

Rarely if ever has one man had such broad authority to spend government money as he sees fit, with no rules requiring him to seek out the lowest possible price for assets being purchased.

The secretary is supposed to do what he can to maximize the profit or minimize the eventual loss to the federal government as a result of its purchase of mortgages and other financial instruments. But in the case of mortgages controlled by the government, he is required to approve “reasonable requests for loss mitigation measures, including term extensions, rate reductions, principal write-downs” and other possible changes. Such requests could help homeowners at the expense of the government.

Congress forced the Bush administration to agree to a provision requiring financial institutions that sell securities to the program to give an equity or debt stake to the government. But Mr. Paulson will have wide latitude in deciding how large a stake is needed. His discretion in setting those limits could have a major impact on how many institutions choose to participate.

The limits on executive pay in the bill, also added in response to pressure from legislators, appear unlikely to be used very often. The secretary could take such steps if he bought substantial assets “from an individual financial institution where no bidding process or market prices are available.”

Presumably, if there is some kind of bidding process, those limitations, over which the secretary also has considerable discretion, will not apply. However, institutions that receive $300 million or more from the program would face limitations on executive pay.

One of the most important decisions the secretary will make is the price the government pays for securities. Here again, there is wide discretion. He is directed to “make such purchases at the lowest price” that is “consistent with the purposes of this act.”

Those purposes, however, are expansive and leave him room to pay well over the lowest price available if he wishes to do so. The act is designed to “restore liquidity and stability to the financial system of the United States” and protect homeownership, home values and economic growth. If he concludes that a higher price is needed to provide stability in the financial markets, that is evidently acceptable.

When the Bush administration submitted its original proposal, there was an uproar over the lack of oversight of the secretary’s actions. This bill requires frequent reports to Congressional committees, including a Congressional oversight panel; audits by the comptroller general; and appointment of an inspector general for the program.

The bill also sets up an oversight board, which is directed to “ensure that the policies implemented” by Mr. Paulson are proper. Mr. Paulson is to be one of the five members of the board watching over his actions, joined by the chairman of the Federal Reserve, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Housing Secretary and the director of the Federal Home Finance Agency.

If Mr. Paulson wishes to use his authority to buy financial assets not linked to mortgages, he can do so after consulting the Fed chairman. But he does not need the approval of the Fed chairman or the oversight board.

The bill does allow legal challenges, but attempts to assure they are quickly handled and that the most important decisions can be challenged only on constitutional grounds, not on the ground that they conflict with some other law.

While the bill does not drop the accounting rule that requires banks to report on the market value of their assets — a rule that some banks believe has forced them to report excessive losses — it gives the S.E.C. permission to suspend the rule for any individual company if it thinks that is in the public’s interest. That is likely to lead to intensive lobbying of the commission.

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