Friday, September 19, 2008

Washington's 'sweeping changes' in financial mess should focus on transparency

This is the way it's done in the movies -- bam, bam, thank you, ma'am (or, in this case, Uncle Sam). When I hear the words "sweeping plan" from Washington, I am not reassured. The situation is bad, but how much of the bad is structural? The flashing orange light in this WSJ column, "How to Save the Financial System," by William M. Isaac, who was chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. in President Reagan's first term, makes me wonder.

Wall Street indeed screwed up, but why should we count on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to fix things? What's needed most of all in the financial markets is transparency, not a lot of new rules. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac hid their dodgy dealings through opaque accounting. On Wall Street, it was the same story, with investment houses and other debt-churning businesses hiding their dodgy stuff in off-balance-sheet instruments like "Structured Investment Vehicles."

Marched to the edge of the gang plank, Wall Street looks to be ready to roll up the shades and let the light come in. If Washington's sweeping changes concentrate on enforcing transparency, that may be sweeping enough.

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