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Every crisis creates its lexicon, no matter how ridiculous.
The "Too Big To Fail" poster child is, of course, AIG, the insurance giant which, to date, has taken in $144 billion in rescue funds. Let's leave aside the $440,000 executive retreat these funds enabled just days after the bailout was extended. An internal Treasury Department report obtained by ABC News said AIG’s failure “would cause turmoil in the U.S. economy and global markets and have multiple and potentially catastrophic unforeseen consequences.”
AIG's losses — and its unique leverage over our tax dollars — owe to the fact that it underwrote much of the "securitized" investment of the past decade. This means its failure would deprive faltering banks of their claim money, one of the few reliable sources of revenue they currently have (outside the Treasury).
But AIG is not alone in the TBFT pail. General Motors, for instance, by virtue not only of its huge payroll and pension obligations, but also its potential to pull down with it the U.S. auto subcontracting industry, as well as its two U.S. rivals, Ford and Chrysler, also qualifies ($94 billion in federal aid combined to date). So, too, does Citicorp, the world's largest bank by some measures ($75 billion) and Bank of America ($20 billion, plus $118 billion in credit guarantees).
At some point, one hopes, the bailout itself becomes TBTF.
Plurilateral Agreements: This wonky phrase, which looks like the verbal equivalent of the "Pushmi-pullyu" of Dr. Doolittle fame, refers to treaties or agreements that are agreed to by some, but not all of the parties. In effect, it's like living in a town with strict zoning rules, only the zoning rules are voluntary (plurilateral).
The reason this odd term has appeared on the radar is all about free trade — to be specific, the inclusion by Congress of "Buy America" rules in the recently passed stimulus package. Governments around the world quickly complained that this violates the plurilateral government procurement rules of the World Trade Organization.
Few would quibble with that accusation. Technically, this means companies from any of the 27 signatories, including the European Union, Japan, China, and Canada must be given the right to bid on such projects. But with aid to "national champions" like GM or, in France, Airbus, back on the table, it's unclear how hard spurned governments will press their case.
Of course, all this jargon may cloud the mind. But remember, it's nothing when compared to the lexicon of the Great Depression, where the Works Progress Administration, or the Tennessee Valley Association (TVA) often was all that stood between a family and starvation.
So don't hide your money under a TARP or bury your head in the sand. When it comes to the global economy, we're all too entangled to fail.
Michael Moran, GlobalPost columnist, is executive editor of CFR.org, website of the Council on Foreign Relations.