FRONTLINE’s Breaking the Bank tells the story of Lewis’ struggle to survive in this new financial order, where public outrage and government edicts are now as important to banking as shareholders and deposits. With his bank on the brink, Lewis now finds himself the subject of a shareholder revolt, congressional indignation, presidential pressure and the increasingly conflicting demands of private investors and government officials.
The journey begins as FRONTLINE correspondent Forrest Sawyer takes viewers to a secret location: the Treasury’s debt auction room, where the U.S. government sells securities backed by the “full faith and credit of the United States.” On this day, the government is auctioning $67 billion of Treasury securities. The money borrowed will be used to fund services and programs that the government cannot pay for through tax revenues alone.
Observers warn that the United States’ reliance on borrowing to fund essential programs is a dangerous gamble. For the first time, investors are beginning to question the ability of federal government to meet its growing financial obligations, and fading confidence can have dire consequences. “You might have a situation where there is one day when the government says we need to sell several billion dollars of bonds, and nobody shows,” Economist reporter Greg Ip says. “No money to pay the Social Security checks, no money to give to the states for their Medicaid programs. Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut.”
Yet more borrowing is exactly what the Obama administration plans to do: hundreds of billions to bail out the banks and other financial institutions; tens of billions more for the auto industry; $275 billion for homeowners and mortgage lenders; and a giant $787 billion stimulus package to jump-start an economy spiraling downward. Just like the Bush administration before it, Obama and his team are going to borrow big.
“That’s the paradox of the situation that we’re in now,” observes Matt Miller, author of The Tyranny of Dead Ideas. “Government has got to run big deficits to stimulate the economy, deficits that would have been unthinkable … because government’s the only entity with the wherewithal to prop up a demand in the economy when businesses and consumers are all pulling back.”