Apologists for the bailout plan say that it will have a trickle-down benefit for taxpayers.
But in his testimony to the Senate today, Bernanke pretty much admitted that the bailout isn’t aimed at helping taxpayers.
Specifically, as the Wall Street Journal summarizes it:
Bernanke used his time to argue for not buying assets at fire-sale prices in the Treasury’s $700 billion bailout proposal.
Mr. Bernanke said the Treasury plan should have taxpayers buy the assets and hold them at close to their maturity value. Removing the assets, he said, would bring liquidity back to markets, unfreeze credit markets, reduce uncertainty and allow banks to attract private capital. (Reuters has a partial transcript)
Forcing assets down to even lower fire-sale prices would protect taxpayers the most, since the government would own the assets below the value if held to maturity. As long as those securities didn’t flat-out default, the government’s purchase would have a substantial upside. However, Mr. Bernanke essentially argued that doing so would hurt markets even further and wouldn’t solve the problem facing the economy. In pushing back against congressional efforts to change the Treasury proposal, Mr. Bernanke said: “We cannot impose punitive measures on institutions that choose to sell assets.” The beneficiaries would be not just the companies selling, but markets and the overall economy, he said.
Still, he acknowledged that the precise approach to doing so hadn’t been determined, arguing for flexibility. “We do not know exactly what the best design is,” and that would come from consultation with experts, Mr. Bernanke said.
“We believe that strong and timely action is urgently needed to stabilize our markets and our economy,” he said.
In subsequent questioning, Mr. Bernanke distinguished between, on the one hand, “fire sale prices,” the ones that prevail “when you sell into an illiquid market” and, on the other, the prices that holders think the assets are really worth, sometimes described as “fundamental” values or “hold-to-maturity” value.
“The holders have a view of what they think it’s worth. It’s hard for outsiders to know,” Mr. Bernanke said. The point of an auction is to reveal those prices.
So Bernanke is arguing against the government purchasing Wall Street’s toxic assets at their real price (which would benefit taxpayers) and for the Wall Street firms themselves to set whatever arbitrary price they like, since they “have a view of what they think it’s worth” and “it’s hard for outsiders to know”.
Further proof of the fact that the bailout is not aimed at helping taxpayers is that even very wealthy, solvent Wall Street (and foreign) firms may get bailout money. See this.