Archives: July, 2009

Mortgage Mods: Congressman Prefers Coercion over Cooperation

The recent focus in Washington on mortgage modifications once again illustrates one of the most fundamental flaws in current political debate:  the notion of using government to threaten or force the “voluntary” transfer of wealth from one group of citizens to another.

Just this week Rep. Barney Frank warned the banking industry if they don’t “voluntarily” do more to reduce foreclosures, Congress will step in and make them do so, by allowing bankruptcy judges to re-write mortgage contracts.  This proposal is really nothing more an ex poste transfer of wealth from investors in mortgage backed assets to borrowers.

Of course, Rep. Frank and others respond that they are only trying to “bring lenders to the table” in order to keep negotiations going.  In the words of many “consumer” advocates, this is just a “stick” to the motivate the lenders.  I could think of few things more offensive to a free society.  In a government truly constituted on the notion of the common good or general welfare, it would be no more appropriate to use the stick of the state on lenders than it would be on borrowers.  Government quite simply should not take sides in purely private disputes. 

One would think that if anyone could understand the principle that government should not interfere in the private, voluntarily entered relationships of consenting adults, it should be Mr. Frank.

Using ‘Cash For Clunkers’ Money to Buy a Muscle Car

chevelleABC News reports that the “Cash for Clunkers” scheme, a government program that offers a rebate to people who trade in vehicles with low gas mileage for more fuel efficient cars, is  gaining popularity:

The program is off to a fast start. In less than a week, 8,000 cars have been traded in for new ones – deals that might not have happened if Washington were not offering people $3,500 to $4,500 to get their aging gas guzzlers off the road.

In June, Cato senior fellow Alan Reynolds explained  how you can use that money to buy the muscle car or truck you always wanted:

Consider how easy it would be to game this giveaway program by using that $4,500 voucher to buy a big SUV or V-8 muscle car.

First of  all, with Chrysler and GM dealerships folding, it should be easy to buy a mediocre Chevy Cobalt or Dodge Caliber for about $10,000 more than the voucher.

What you do next is sell that boring econobox, even if you end up with $1,000 less than you paid — that still leaves you with $3,500 of free money, courtesy of taxpayers.

As this  process unfolds, the flood of resold small cars will make it even  harder for GM, Chrysler and Ford dealers to get a decent price for small cars, because of added competition from new cars being resold as used.

That’s their problem, not yours.

So, take the $9,000 net from reselling the crummy little car plus the $4,500 from Uncle Sam.  Then use that $13,500 to make a big down payment on a used Cadillac Escalade,  Toyota Tundra pickup or Corvette.

File this under “unintended consequences” (my own file is running out of space).

More Evidence on the Turning Tide

america-store_2065_6501360I wrote recently about the anti-Obama T-shirts on display at Washington’s Dulles Airport. This week I can report that at the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, there are big cut-outs of Barack and Michelle Obama. But they’re standing by a display of shirts reading “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for McCain and Palin” and another reading “NOPE (with the Obama campaign logo) – keep the change.” The times they are a-changin’.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that out in the real America, the airports of Albuquerque and San Diego, there are no T-shirts on display for or against any politician. It’s like they don’t think Americans care about politicians.

Out of the TARP, But Still on the Dole

While banks such as Goldman and J.P. Morgan have managed to find a way to re-pay the capital injections made under the TARP bailout, their reliance on public subsidies is far from over. The federal government, via a debt guarantee program run by the FDIC, is still putting considerable taxpayer funds at risk on behalf of the banking industry.  The Wall Street Journal estimates that banks participating in the FDIC debt guarantee program will save about $24 billion in reduced borrowing costs of the next three years. The Journal estimates that Goldman alone will save over $2 billion on its borrowing costs due to the FDIC’s guarantees.

One of the conditions imposed by the Treasury department for allowing banks to leave the TARP was that such banks be able to issue debt not guaranteed by the government.  Apparently this requirement did not apply to all of a firm’s debt issues.  These banks should be expected to issue all their debt without a government guarantee and be required to pay back any currently outstanding government guaranteed debt.

To add insult to injury, not only are banks reaping huge subsidies from the FDIC debt guarantee program, but the program itself is likely illegal.  The FDIC’s authority to take special actions on behalf of a failing ”systemically” important bank is limited to a bank-by-bank review.  The FDIC’s actions over the last several months to declare the entire banking system as systemically important is at best a fanciful reading of the law. 

The FDIC should immediately terminate this illegal program and end the continuing string of subsidies going to Wall Street banks, many of which are reporting enormous profits.

Venezuela’s Assault on Freedom of the Press and Other Liberties

A Venezuelan court has prohibited Guillermo Zuloaga, president of Globovision Television, from traveling to Washington, D.C. where he was scheduled to deliver an address tomorrow at the Cato Institute. Zuloaga and his network have been openly critical of the Hugo Chavez government, and as a result have endured harassment from authorities as Chavez attempts to place television and radio networks under government control or shutter them completely.

As a result, the Cato forum will now feature the vice-president of Globovision TV, Carlos Alberto Zuloaga, and Rafael Alfonzo, president of CEDICE, Venezuela’s leading market-liberal think tank, with comment by Robert Rivard, of the Inter American Press Association. Mr. Alfonzo will discuss how CEDICE and other members of civil society are coming under increasingly serious government harassment for expressing views critical of the government.

Don’t Fear the Freedom, Higher Ed!

It’s not often that I can transition from my education beat to other hot topics, but an Inside Higher Ed story on colleges’ health-care benefits includes this little nugget:

One trend documented in the survey that may concern many employees is the increase in “consumer driven” health insurance plans by colleges. These typically involve employees setting up tax-free accounts to pay for some care, and then high deductibles for major medical expenses. This year, 17 percent of colleges were offering the plans, up from 11 percent two years ago.

So what’s so terrible about “consumer driven” health care, which from the article sounds like health savings accounts ? The story doesn’t say – nor does it give any details on who puts the money into the accounts or other minimally useful info – it just suggests that employees should be a little scared of controlling their own health care funds. 

Unfortunately, this kind of reflexive fear of markets and freedom is a hallmark of both education and health care debates, so this thoughtless little passage hardly comes as a surprise. But I want to help Inside Higher Ed: If you folks want to be informed next time you cover health care, give these guys a call. They’ll be more than happy to help you, just as I am with all of your education-related needs!

Operators, as they say, are standing by…

Would Summers Be Any Worse than Bernanke?

As I have argued elsewhere, Bernanke’s record as both a Fed governor and Chair suggest we be better off with a new Fed Chair come January 2010, when Bernanke’s term as Chair expires. Outside of those who believe the bailouts have saved capitalism, two very reasonable arguments are put forth for keeping Bernanke at the helm:  1) in a time of crisis, the markets need certainty and dislike change; and 2) the alternatives, such as Larry Summers, would be worse.  Both these points have real merit, however I believe in both cases the pros of change outweigh the cons of staying the course with Bernanke.  I will save the “certainty” debate for another time, for now, let’s ask ourselves:  Would Summers really be any worse than Bernanke?

Before I make the case for Summers, I do want to make clear, President Obama, and the country, would best be served by a “Carter picks Volcker” type moment.  Go outside the Administration, go beyond the usual circle of easy-money, new Keynesians.  The Fed lacks creditability in two (at least two) important areas: bailouts and inflation.  And one doesn’t even need to go outside of the Federal Reserve System to find candidates.  Topping my list would be Jeff Lacker (Richmond Fed), Gary Stern (Minn Fed) and Charles Plosser (Philly Fed).  Any of these three know the workings of the Fed, have the respect of the Fed staff, and have taken strong positions on both “too big to fail” and easy money.  In the case of Gary Stern, it would seem especially appropriate, as his early warnings (see his 2004 book on bank bailouts) were largely ignored and dismissed.  If we want to reward and promote those who got it right, these guys are at the top of the list.

But let’s reasonably suppose that Obama wants someone close, someone he personally knows and will stick with tradition by picking a member of his own administration.  Without going into any detail, picking Romer would offer little substantial difference with keeping Bernanke.  The case for Summers is essentially that here is one instance where his enormous ego would be an asset.  One easily gets the sense that when Summers sits next to President Obama, Summers is thinking to himself just how lucky the President is to be sitting next to Larry Summers.  One can call Summers lots of things, starstruck is not one of them.  Given what we now need most in a Fed Chair is true independence, from especially the Administration but also from Congress, Summers is the only qualified economist close to the President who displays even the slightest streak of independent thinking.  Bernanke, in contrast, has endlessly pandered to the Administration and to Congressional Democrats.  Summers has been willing on occasion to actually defend the sanctity of contract (remember the debates over the AIG bonuses), a rarity on the Left, and more than Bernanke was willing to say.  

So forced to choose between Bernanke and Summers, the need for an independent Fed Chair willing to take on the Administration and Congress, when appropriate, makes Summers a far better choice.  That said, here’s to encouraging Obama go outside his comfort zone and pick someone who has the will to remove excess liquidity from the system before the next bubble gets going.