Sunday, March 29, 2009

Basic truths of the economic situation, cont.

In case you missed them:

Simon Johnson: The Quiet Coup (excerpt):
The great wealth that the financial sector created and concentrated gave bankers enormous political weight—a weight not seen in the U.S. since the era of J.P. Morgan (the man). In that period, the banking panic of 1907 could be stopped only by coordination among private-sector bankers: no government entity was able to offer an effective response. But that first age of banking oligarchs came to an end with the passage of significant banking regulation in response to the Great Depression; the reemergence of an American financial oligarchy is quite recent...

Throughout the crisis, the government has taken extreme care not to upset the interests of the financial institutions, or to question the basic outlines of the system that got us here. In September 2008, Henry Paulson asked Congress for $700 billion to buy toxic assets from banks, with no strings attached and no judicial review of his purchase decisions. Many observers suspected that the purpose was to overpay for those assets and thereby take the problem off the banks’ hands—indeed, that is the only way that buying toxic assets would have helped anything. Perhaps because there was no way to make such a blatant subsidy politically acceptable, that plan was shelved.

Instead, the money was used to recapitalize banks, buying shares in them on terms that were grossly favorable to the banks themselves. As the crisis has deepened and financial institutions have needed more help, the government has gotten more and more creative in figuring out ways to provide banks with subsidies that are too complex for the general public to understand....

Looking just at the financial crisis (and leaving aside some problems of the larger economy), we face at least two major, interrelated problems. The first is a desperately ill banking sector that threatens to choke off any incipient recovery that the fiscal stimulus might generate. The second is a political balance of power that gives the financial sector a veto over public policy, even as that sector loses popular support.

Big banks, it seems, have only gained political strength since the crisis began. And this is not surprising. With the financial system so fragile, the damage that a major bank failure could cause—Lehman was small relative to Citigroup or Bank of America—is much greater than it would be during ordinary times. The banks have been exploiting this fear as they wring favorable deals out of Washington. Bank of America obtained its second bailout package (in January) after warning the government that it might not be able to go through with the acquisition of Merrill Lynch, a prospect that Treasury did not want to consider.

The challenges the United States faces are familiar territory to the people at the IMF. If you hid the name of the country and just showed them the numbers, there is no doubt what old IMF hands would say: nationalize troubled banks and break them up as necessary.

In some ways, of course, the government has already taken control of the banking system. It has essentially guaranteed the liabilities of the biggest banks, and it is their only plausible source of capital today. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve has taken on a major role in providing credit to the economy—the function that the private banking sector is supposed to be performing, but isn’t. Yet there are limits to what the Fed can do on its own; consumers and businesses are still dependent on banks that lack the balance sheets and the incentives to make the loans the economy needs, and the government has no real control over who runs the banks, or over what they do.

At the root of the banks’ problems are the large losses they have undoubtedly taken on their securities and loan portfolios. But they don’t want to recognize the full extent of their losses, because that would likely expose them as insolvent. So they talk down the problem, and ask for handouts that aren’t enough to make them healthy (again, they can’t reveal the size of the handouts that would be necessary for that), but are enough to keep them upright a little longer. This behavior is corrosive: unhealthy banks either don’t lend (hoarding money to shore up reserves) or they make desperate gambles on high-risk loans and investments that could pay off big, but probably won’t pay off at all. In either case, the economy suffers further, and as it does, bank assets themselves continue to deteriorate—creating a highly destructive vicious cycle.

To break this cycle, the government must force the banks to acknowledge the scale of their problems. As the IMF understands (and as the U.S. government itself has insisted to multiple emerging-market countries in the past), the most direct way to do this is nationalization. Instead, Treasury is trying to negotiate bailouts bank by bank, and behaving as if the banks hold all the cards—contorting the terms of each deal to minimize government ownership while forswearing government influence over bank strategy or operations. Under these conditions, cleaning up bank balance sheets is impossible.

Nationalization would not imply permanent state ownership. The IMF’s advice would be, essentially: scale up the standard Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation process. An FDIC “intervention” is basically a government-managed bankruptcy procedure for banks. It would allow the government to wipe out bank shareholders, replace failed management, clean up the balance sheets, and then sell the banks back to the private sector. The main advantage is immediate recognition of the problem so that it can be solved before it grows worse.

The government needs to inspect the balance sheets and identify the banks that cannot survive a severe recession. These banks should face a choice: write down your assets to their true value and raise private capital within 30 days, or be taken over by the government. The government would write down the toxic assets of banks taken into receivership—recognizing reality—and transfer those assets to a separate government entity, which would attempt to salvage whatever value is possible for the taxpayer (as the Resolution Trust Corporation did after the savings-and-loan debacle of the 1980s). The rump banks—cleansed and able to lend safely, and hence trusted again by other lenders and investors—could then be sold off.

Cleaning up the megabanks will be complex. And it will be expensive for the taxpayer; according to the latest IMF numbers, the cleanup of the banking system would probably cost close to $1.5trillion (or 10percent of our GDP) in the long term. But only decisive government action—exposing the full extent of the financial rot and restoring some set of banks to publicly verifiable health—can cure the financial sector as a whole.

This may seem like strong medicine. But in fact, while necessary, it is insufficient. The second problem the U.S. faces—the power of the oligarchy—is just as important as the immediate crisis of lending. And the advice from the IMF on this front would again be simple: break the oligarchy.

Oversize institutions disproportionately influence public policy; the major banks we have today draw much of their power from being too big to fail. Nationalization and re-privatization would not change that; while the replacement of the bank executives who got us into this crisis would be just and sensible, ultimately, the swapping-out of one set of powerful managers for another would change only the names of the oligarchs.

Ideally, big banks should be sold in medium-size pieces, divided regionally or by type of business. Where this proves impractical—since we’ll want to sell the banks quickly—they could be sold whole, but with the requirement of being broken up within a short time. Banks that remain in private hands should also be subject to size limitations.

This may seem like a crude and arbitrary step, but it is the best way to limit the power of individual institutions in a sector that is essential to the economy as a whole. Of course, some people will complain about the “efficiency costs” of a more fragmented banking system, and these costs are real. But so are the costs when a bank that is too big to fail—a financial weapon of mass self-destruction—explodes. Anything that is too big to fail is too big to exist.

To ensure systematic bank breakup, and to prevent the eventual reemergence of dangerous behemoths, we also need to overhaul our antitrust legislation. Laws put in place more than 100years ago to combat industrial monopolies were not designed to address the problem we now face. The problem in the financial sector today is not that a given firm might have enough market share to influence prices; it is that one firm or a small set of interconnected firms, by failing, can bring down the economy. The Obama administration’s fiscal stimulus evokes FDR, but what we need to imitate here is Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting...

Matt Taibbi: The Big Takeover (excerpt):
The people who have spent their lives cloistered in this Wall Street community aren't much for sharing information with the great unwashed. Because all of this shit is complicated, because most of us mortals don't know what the hell LIBOR is or how a REIT works or how to use the word "zero coupon bond" in a sentence without sounding stupid — well, then, the people who do speak this idiotic language cannot under any circumstances be bothered to explain it to us and instead spend a lot of time rolling their eyes and asking us to trust them.

That roll of the eyes is a key part of the psychology of Paulsonism. The state is now being asked not just to call off its regulators or give tax breaks or funnel a few contracts to connected companies; it is intervening directly in the economy, for the sole purpose of preserving the influence of the megafirms. In essence, Paulson used the bailout to transform the government into a giant bureaucracy of entitled assholedom, one that would socialize "toxic" risks but keep both the profits and the management of the bailed-out firms in private hands. Moreover, this whole process would be done in secret, away from the prying eyes of NASCAR dads, broke-ass liberals who read translations of French novels, subprime mortgage holders and other such financial losers...

The situation with the first TARP payments grew so absurd that when the Congressional Oversight Panel, charged with monitoring the bailout money, sent a query to Paulson asking how he decided whom to give money to, Treasury responded — and this isn't a joke — by directing the panel to a copy of the TARP application form on its website. Elizabeth Warren, the chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, was struck nearly speechless by the response.

"Do you believe that?" she says incredulously. "That's not what we had in mind."

Another member of Congress, who asked not to be named, offers his own theory about the TARP process. "I think basically if you knew Hank Paulson, you got the money," he says.

This cozy arrangement created yet another opportunity for big banks to devour market share at the expense of smaller regional lenders. While all the bigwigs at Citi and Goldman and Bank of America who had Paulson on speed-dial got bailed out right away — remember that TARP was originally passed because money had to be lent right now, that day, that minute, to stave off emergency — many small banks are still waiting for help. Five months into the TARP program, some not only haven't received any funds, they haven't even gotten a call back about their applications.

"There's definitely a feeling among community bankers that no one up there cares much if they make it or not," says Tanya Wheeless, president of the Arizona Bankers Association.

Which, of course, is exactly the opposite of what should be happening, since small, regional banks are far less guilty of the kinds of predatory lending that sank the economy. "They're not giving out subprime loans or easy credit," says Wheeless. "At the community level, it's much more bread-and-butter banking."

Nonetheless, the lion's share of the bailout money has gone to the larger, so-called "systemically important" banks. "It's like Treasury is picking winners and losers," says one state banking official who asked not to be identified.

This itself is a hugely important political development. In essence, the bailout accelerated the decline of regional community lenders by boosting the political power of their giant national competitors.

Which, when you think about it, is insane: What had brought us to the brink of collapse in the first place was this relentless instinct for building ever-larger megacompanies, passing deregulatory measures to gradually feed all the little fish in the sea to an ever-shrinking pool of Bigger Fish. To fix this problem, the government should have slowly liquidated these monster, too-big-to-fail firms and broken them down to smaller, more manageable companies. Instead, federal regulators closed ranks and used an almost completely secret bailout process to double down on the same faulty, merger-happy thinking that got us here in the first place, creating a constellation of megafirms under government control that are even bigger, more unwieldy and more crammed to the gills with systemic risk.

We'll see what Obama's team can accomplish while demurring on these fundamental problems. (We'll have to "hope" there might still be something of an institution left then even capable of Finance Industry-busting.)

UPDATE: And Thomas Geoghegan's article in this month's Harper's also essential reading (login: mchristie password: christie). He lays out the decades-long history of the financial sector's devastating rise to dominance, at the expense of manufacturing and labor, the middle class, wages, economic sustainability, something more like democracy, etc. He makes points Michael Moore would do well to understand a little better:
When banks get 25 percent to 30 percent on credit cards, and 500 or more percent on payday loans, capital flees from honest pursuits, like auto manufacturing. Sure, GM is awful. Sure, it doesn't innovate. But the people who could have saved GM and Ford went off to work at AIG, or Merrill Lynch, or even Goldman Sachs. All of this used to be so obvious as not to merit comment. What is history, really, but a turf war between manufacturing, labor and the banks? In the United States, we shrank manufacturing. We got rid of labor. Now it's just the banks.

Which is why the middle class is shrinking. Basically, we're all waiters now; we're bowing and scraping and working for the banks. Look closely at any American, and it's even odds that he or she, directly or indirectly, is somehow employed by the "financial services sector," which covers insurance and real estate and financial instruments of any kind. As brokers, lawyers, loan collectors, loan consolidators, secretaries at big investment firms, chauffeurs of private limousines, or even the high-tech types who exist solely to service banks–all of us, millions of us, are part of it, living off it in some way, as three generations ago we lived off manufacturing.

[...]'s the Plan.
First, we have to pass a new type of law against usury that accepts the world in which we all live now[...]let's cap interest at 9 percent, then let a federal agency give exemptions[...]
Second, we should have state-owned banks[...]
Third, we should have at least one or two "public guardians" as directors at the banks and other financial firms we have bailed out with $700 billion in taxes and all the money the Fed has printed[...]
Fourth, we should require the banks we bail out to cancel an appropriate amount of consumer debt–especially in the instances where people would have paid back the principal by now had the interest rate been more reasonable[...]
Finally, we should think about ways to "inject equity" directly into the accounts of working people rather than into banks. The best way to do this is to announce a plan to raise the gross replacement rate of Social Security from 44 percent to something closer to 65 percent, which is still short of the rate in may European social democracies. We can afford this as much as or more than they can[...]

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