By Steve Jagler Special to Published Jul 24, 2008 at 8:31 AM
Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes.
Do you ever get the sinking feeling that America's economic infrastructure is crumbling around us?

Among other things, 2008 may go down in history as the year of the taxpayer bailout. And when it's all said and done, us taxpayers may be holding the bag for damages done to America's banking system, its housing market, its automotive sector and its airline industry.

It began in March, when the Federal Reserve Bank decided to facilitate a fire sale of Bear Stearns to rival JP Morgan Chase by agreeing to back $29 billion worth of Bear Stearns' assets that were mostly tied to mortgages.

That decision prompted U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and others to voice concerns that the Fed's decision recklessly exposed taxpayers to bad debt and may prompt other private firms to believe the government will bail them out if their investments go south.

"I am concerned when the taxpayer's money becomes the 'skin in the game' to rescue supposedly sophisticated investment and commercial banks from their own poor decision-making," Brownback said.

This week, President George W. Bush dropped his opposition to new legislation intended to stabilize the nation's housing market.

Bush had objected to the bill's $3.9 billion provision for neighborhoods hit hardest by foreclosures.

Under the bill, the government would help struggling homeowners obtain new, cheaper loans, and the government would be allowed to offer troubled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac a cash infusion.

The "American Housing Rescue and Foreclosure Prevention Act" would combine the Democrats' priorities of providing federal help for homeowners facing foreclosure and $3.9 billion for devastated neighborhoods with the Republicans' goal of reining in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The collapse of the housing market is causing severe distress for many southeastern Wisconsin companies, including MGIC Investment Corp., the nation's largest private mortgage insurer, and Marshall & Ilsley Corp., the parent company of M&I Bank that invested heavily in mortgages in the bubble-bursting Arizona and Florida housing markets.

Many Congressional Republicans objected to the housing plan, calling it a costly bailout for irresponsible homeowners and unscrupulous lenders. At a closed-door meeting Wednesday, House Republicans denounced the bailout, but the bill was passed later in the day in the House by a vote of 272-152.

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) promptly denounced the bill.

"My top priority is to protect the taxpayers, not the shareholders. Our current policy toward Fannie and Freddie is not only dysfunctional and rife with bad incentives, but it also has potentially disastrous consequences for taxpayers. This bailout plan aggravates the fundamental problem that led us here: Fannie and Freddie remain for-profit corporations but still enjoy a Federal guarantee at the taxpayers' expense against any risk of loss," Ryan said.

"To force Americans already struggling to make ends meet to take on this risk is a dangerous precedent. Congress has tuned out the voice of the taxpayer with today's bailout bill. Since my first years in Congress, I have called for reforms in Congressional oversight of these mortgage giants, so that we could have avoided the current situation. We need to inject some commonsense into this debate, rather than set ourselves up for more taxpayer-funded bailouts in the future."

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) joined Ryan in voting against the bill.

"Once again, the House Democratic leadership has put forth legislation that does not accomplish its stated goal: in this case, that of helping American taxpayers struggling to be responsible with their home mortgages. Probably the most egregious provision tucked in the bowels of this 700-page legislation that was rushed through Congress in order to come to the floor today, is an $800 billion increase in the public debt. Public debt is money that the government can borrow, and with this bill, our debt limit would now be taken to a new record high of $10.6 trillion," Sensenbrenner said.

"I could not in good conscience vote for a bill that takes taxpayer money to bail out scam artists and speculative lenders. Despite its title, H.R. 3221 will do nothing for housing and economic recovery."

Conversely, Congresswoman Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee) hailed the bill.

"Fundamentally, the goal of this comprehensive plan is to help American homeowners and the nation's housing market weather the most serious international economic crisis we have faced in nearly 20 years," Moore said. "The measures that we have already passed have been necessary but not sufficient. This housing bill is the next critical step in our efforts to address the crisis facing our communities."

Meanwhile, America's automotive and airline sectors appear to be in a race to bankruptcy court.

General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., the two largest U.S. automakers, have about a 46-percent chance of default within five years, according to Edward Altman, a finance professor at New York University's Stern School of Business.

"Both are in very serious shape and the markets reflect that,'' Altman, the creator of the Z-score mathematical formula that measures bankruptcy risk, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television earlier this week.

Altman said his model shows that GM and Ford are "on the verge of bankruptcy."

He told Bloomberg, "The thing that triggers a default in almost all cases is running out of cash and not being able to refinance ... You're not going to go bankrupt as long as you can refinance short-term liabilities. You will go bankrupt if you can't.''

The airline industry is trying to survive with an economic model that is doomed to fail, as long as fuel costs remain at near-record levels. In many cases, the airfares charged by the airlines do not cover the costs to fly each passenger. Something must give.

Our hometown company, Midwest Airlines, is retreating into a shell, cutting routes, eliminating jobs and demanding unrealistic concessions from its pilots and flight attendants.

So, here we are. Us taxpayers are bailing out our banks and propping up our housing market. Mortgage foreclosures are skyrocketing. Unemployment and inflation are on the rise. Retailers are closing stores. And the clock is ticking on our automakers and our airlines.

But faced with wars on two fronts, and no end in sight, how much deeper into debt can this country go? Strapped with $4 gasoline and rising food costs, how much more debt can American households incur?

Buckle up. We've surely got more turbulence ahead.

Steve Jagler Special to

Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes in Milwaukee and is past president of the Milwaukee Press Club. BizTimes provides news and operational insight for the owners and managers of privately held companies throughout southeastern Wisconsin.

Steve has won several journalism awards as a reporter, a columnist and an editor. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

When he is not pursuing the news, Steve enjoys spending time with his wife, Kristi, and their two sons, Justin and James. Steve can be reached at