Monday, September 29, 2008

Bailout Blues

Not everybody is cheering:
I think people are severely underestimating the depths of the crisis we are in. This is not a financial crisis about banks and commercial paper. It is not about the housing market. We are in an economic crisis, because America's productive capacity is deeply out of kilter with our habits of consumption. No amount of financial legerdemain can fix that. We have to actually produce the goods and services we want to consume, or else produce current goods and services that we can trade for what we consume. Relying on the mysteries of finance to square the circle has brought us low. At best, the proposed bail-out might buy us some time to fix the underlying economics before the pain kicks in. At worst, the pain will kick in anyway, but we'll have even less flexibility than we have now to address the real problems.

Suppose we pass the "Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008", and a depression comes anyway, and we cannot raise taxes (blood, turnips, all of that), and we cannot borrow from abroad (because our paymasters have tired of us). Sure, the Federal Reserve will print money, because the debt must be paid and the government must continue, and in a depression many prices will fall regardless, but commodities and imports will grow dear. We will know then that we want to build factories, for all the televisions and computers that used to be cheap from Asia, but that can no longer be bought with debauched greenbacks. But we won't have the capital.

What will we say, in those dark days, when someone comes along and blames the bankers? It was the bankers, after all, who "intermediated" our vast current account deficit, who found ways of accepting goods and producing debt despite our incapacity to repay, and who enriched themselves by doing so. And then these self-same bankers threatened us with armageddon unless we paid them hundreds of billions of dollars, back when dollars could still buy steel and cement and machinery. We paid the ransom, but the hostage died anyway. How will Secretary Paulson answer their charge?

Suddenly we will realize the cost of putting expedience before even the thinnest veneer of justice. Because in the end, Secretary Paulson will answer these charges with a locked gate and an exception to the Posse Comitatus Act. An economic depression will bring temptations to violence and radicalism. And a lot of people will look back on this decade, right up to and through the "Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008", and feel with some justice that they were royally screwed.

Now, in a deep downturn, scapegoats will be found no matter what. Maybe we really have nothing to lose by passing this badly flawed proposal, since it might prevent a depression and if not we're all toast anyway. But, you know what? While we still can borrow valuable dollars, we could use that 700B to build infrastructure that might make the economic facts of a depression less severe. And, if we insisted that the mighty bankers actually fall now, actually take the hit that their own ideology demands of them, that just might blunt the sense that we are "us" and "them", rather than a nation with a common struggle, when it all hits the fan. Maybe the choice we are really making here is not about financial and monetary arcana, but a choice between civic peace and civil war.


Thus the claim by the Fed and Treasury that spending $700 billion of public money is the best way to recapitalize banks has absolutely no factual basis or justification. This way of recapitalizing financial institutions is a total rip-off that will mostly benefit – at a huge expense for the US taxpayer - the common and preferred shareholders and even unsecured creditors of the banks. Even the late addition of some warrants that the government will get in exchange of this massive injection of public money is only a cosmetic fig leaf of dubious value as the form and size of such warrants is totally vague and fuzzy.

So this rescue plan is a huge and massive bailout of the shareholders and the unsecured creditors of the financial firms (not just banks but also other non bank financial institutions); with $700 billion of taxpayer money the pockets of reckless bankers and investors have been made fatter under the fake argument that bailing out Wall Street was necessary to rescue Main Street from a severe recession. Instead, the restoration of the financial health of distressed financial firms could have been achieved with a cheaper and better use of public money.

Indeed, the plan also does not address the need to recapitalize those financial institutions that are badly undercapitalized: this could have been achieved by using some of the $700 billion to inject public funds in ways other and more effective than a purchase of toxic assets: via public injections of preferred shares into these firms; via required matching injections of Tier 1 capital by current shareholders to make sure that such shareholders take first tier loss in the presence of public recapitalization; via suspension of dividends payments; via a conversion of some of the unsecured debt into equity (a debt for equity swap). All these actions would have implied a much lower fiscal costs for the government as they would have forced the shareholders and creditors of the banks to contribute to the recapitalization of the banks. So less than $700 billion of public money could have been spent if the private shareholders and creditors had been forced to contribute to the recapitalization; and whatever the size of the public contribution were to be its distribution between purchases of bad assets and more efficient and fair forms of recapitalization (preferred shares, common shares, sub debt) should have been different. For example if the private sector had done its fair matching share only $350 billion of public money could have been used; and of this $350 billion half could have taken the form of purchase of bad assets and the other half should have taken the form of injection of public capital in these financial institutions. So instead of purchasing – most likely at an excessive price - $700 billion of toxic assets the government could have achieved the same result – or a better result of recapitalizing the banks – by spending only $175 billion in the direct purchase of toxic assets. And even after the government will waste $700 billion buying toxic assets many banks that have not yet provisioned for such losses/writedowns will be even more undercapitalized than before. So this plan does not even achieve the basic objective of recapitalizing undercapitalized banks.

The Treasury plan also does not explicitly include an HOLC-style program to reduce across the board the debt burden of the distressed household sector; without such a component the debt overhang of the household sector will continue to depress consumption spending and will exacerbate the current economic recession.

Thus, the Treasury plan is a disgrace: a bailout of reckless bankers, lenders and investors that provides little direct debt relief to borrowers and financially stressed households and that will come at a very high cost to the US taxpayer. And the plan does nothing to resolve the severe stress in money markets and interbank markets that are now close to a systemic meltdown. It is pathetic that Congress did not consult any of the many professional economists that have presented - many on the RGE Monitor Finance blog forum - alternative plans that were more fair and efficient and less costly ways to resolve this crisis. This is again a case of privatizing the gains and socializing the losses; a bailout and socialism for the rich, the well-connected and Wall Street. And it is a scandal that even Congressional Democrats have fallen for this Treasury scam that does little to resolve the debt burden of millions of distressed home owners.

At this point I cannot identify a single good reason to do the bailout.

The basic argument for the bailout is that the banks are filled with so much bad debt that the banks can't trust each other to repay loans. This creates a situation in which the system of payments breaks down. That would mean that we cannot use our ATMs or credit cards or cash checks.

That is a very frightening scenario, but this is not where things end. The Federal Reserve Board would surely step in and take over the major money center banks so that the system of payments would begin functioning again. The Fed was prepared to take over the major banks back in the 80s when bad debt to developing countries threatened to make them insolvent. It is inconceivable that it has not made similar preparations in the current crisis.

In other words, the worst case scenario is that we have an extremely scary day in which the markets freeze for a few hours. Then the Fed steps in and takes over the major banks. The system of payments continues to operate exactly as before, but the bank executives are out of their jobs and the bank shareholders have likely lost most of their money. In other words, the banks have a gun pointed to their heads and are threatening to pull the trigger unless we hand them $700 billion.

If we are not worried about this worst case scenario (to be clear, I wouldn't want to see it), then why should we do the bailout?

There has been a mountain of scare stories and misinformation circulated to push the bailout. Yes, banks have tightened credit. Yes, we are in a recession. But the problem is not a freeze up of the banking system. The problem is the collapse of an $8 trillion housing bubble. (It was remarkable how many so-called experts somehow could not see the housing bubble as it grew to ever more dangerous levels. It is even more remarkable that many of these experts still don't recognize the bubble even as its collapse sinks the economy and the financial system.) The decline in housing prices to date has already cost the economy $4 trillion to $5 trillion in housing equity. This would be expected to lead to a decline in annual consumption on the order of $160 billion to $300 billion.

Given the loss of housing equity, I have actually been surprised that the downturn has not been sharper. Homeowners had been consuming based on their home equity. Much of that equity has now disappeared with the collapse of the bubble. We would expect that their consumption would fall. We also would expect that banks would be reluctant to lend to people who no longer have any collateral.

This is the story of the downturn and of course the bailout does almost nothing to counter this drop in demand. At best, it will make capital available to some marginal lenders who would not otherwise receive loans. We should demand more for $700 billion.

For the record, the restrictions on executive pay and the commitment to give the taxpayers equity in banks in exchange for buying bad assets are jokes. These provisions are sops to provide cover. They are not written in ways to be binding. (And Congress knows how to write binding rules.)

Finally, the bailout absolutely can make things worse. We are going to be in a serious recession because of the collapse of the housing bubble. We will need effective stimulus measures to boost the economy and keep the recession from getting worse.

However, the $700 billion outlay on the bailout is likely to be used as an argument against effective stimulus. We have already seen voices like the Washington Post and the Wall Street funded Peterson Foundation arguing that the government will have to make serious cutbacks because of the bailout.

While their argument is wrong, these are powerful voices in national debates. If the bailout proves to be an obstacle to effective stimulus in future months and years, then the bailout could lead to exactly the sort of prolonged economic downturn that its proponents claim it is intended to prevent.

In short, the bailout rewards some of the richest people in the country for their incompetence. It provides little obvious economic benefit and could lead to long-term harm. That looks like a pretty bad deal.


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