When one lives in a democracy, it pays to get in the habit of shrugging whenever politicians pass some especially witless piece of legislation. Otherwise, you’ll eventually go bonkers.
But sometimes a proposal is so idiotic, so misconceived, and so harebrained that it’s impossible to ignore. In Washington Tuesday, House and Senate conferees on the financial regulation bill agreed on one such nutty item, when they voted to make retroactive the increase in the FDIC’s insurance limit, to $250,000 from $100,000, back to January of 2008.
What can these people be thinking? Congress’s move Tuesday—which essentially bails out 8,700 ex-IndyMac depositors who were stupid enough to have more than the then-FDIC limit on deposit there—aren’t poor downtrodden souls who’ve been screwed by the system. They’re rich. Each has more than $100,000! Some of them, a lot more! They’re so wealthy, in fact, they could afford to let that much money languish earning passbook rates. In the long and unseemly line of bailouts that have happened as the credit crunch has progressed, these are the last people—the very last people—who should be granted a special, surprise place at the federal trough.
But instead, our idiot representatives feel sorry for them. Is there no minimum level of personal responsibility Congress won’t insist that people, or at least wealthy people, accept?
Apparently not. Meanwhile, if the group the Los Angeles Times talked to Tuesday is any indication, the beneficiaries of this new windfall are a bunch of pathetic fools. “It’s nothing to the government,” one of them, a retiree name Craig Phinney, rationalises, “but it will help keep my wife and I slightly above poverty level for a couple of more years.” Uh-huh. Actually, the move will cost the Deposit Insurance Fund around $200 million. And Mr. Phinney, if you’re really so concerned about staying above the poverty line, why not take a moment (and it won’t take much more than a moment) to learn about how federal deposit insurance actually works? It’s pretty common knowledge that there are limits to coverage. Nor was it any secret that IndyMac was a shaky institution before it was finally seized. If you’re so close to the poverty line, why did you have so much money at IndyMac in the first place?
In the meantime, the moral hazard that Congress’s move Tuesday creates is not unsubstantial. I can’t imagine why large depositors won’t be more willing now to shop for yield at institutions they know are less than completely sound. Then, when one fails, depositors will point to the precedent set Tuesday and demand that they, too, be made whole. So at the margin, the conferees’ vote will make the financial system less strong rather than more so. This is reform?
You’re thinking that I’m being too tough on Congress and the hapless depositors it’s helping. No. The government has bailed out the automakers. It’s bailed out big banks. It’s shoveling stimulus money in order to bail out the states. Now it wants to bail out people who have so much money already that their bank balances exceeded FDIC limits? It’s insane.