Tag: Bailout

Blocking Obamacare Exchanges Is Only Risky for Obamacare Profiteers

USA Today reports that groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Cato Institute have had much success in discouraging states from creating Obamacare’s health insurance “exchanges.” Even the Heritage Foundation, which once counseled states to establish “defensive” Obamacare exchanges, now counsels states to refuse to create them and to send all exchange-related grants back to Washington.

In response, Obamacare contractor and self-described conservative Republican Cheryl Smith sniffs:

When you work at a think-tank, it’s really easy to come up with these really high-risk plans.

Except, there is no risk to states. The only risks to this strategy are that health insurance companies won’t get half a trillion dollars in taxpayer subsidies, and that certain Obamacare contractors won’t get any more of those lucrative exchange contracts.

‘We Are Not Deciding between Regulation and Autonomy, We Are Deciding Whether or Not We Want a Puppet Government’

That’s how Charlie Arlinghaus, president of New Hampshire’s Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, describes the decision confronting states about whether to create an ObamaCare Exchange in this op-ed for the New Hampshire Union-Leader.

Let’s Divest of GM Yesterday

Writing in today’s Washington Post, Charles Lane posits that the time is now for the U.S. Treasury to divest of its remaining 500 million shares of General Motors stock.  I agree with that conclusion, but not with Lane’s rationale or his recommendation for a heavy-handed, government-imposed exit strategy.

Just to recap: the Treasury recouped $23 billion of taxpayers’ $50 billion outlay when it sold GM shares to the public in an IPO in November 2010; the outstanding 500 million shares in government coffers must be sold at an average price of $54 to recover the remaining $27 billion; the IPO price was $33; today’s price is $21.69.  If all 500 million shares could be sold at today’s price, the Treasury would raise $10.8 billion, leaving taxpayers at a loss of just over $16 billion. (Of course, the sale of such a large number of shares would drive the average selling price way below today’s price, resulting in a much larger taxpayer loss.)

Lane is correct to conclude that GM’s immediate future isn’t looking quite so rosy. Demand is tanking in Europe. Concerns remain about whether GM will continue to be able to fund its $128 billion pension plan. And sales of the “game-changing” Chevy Volt have been lagging since the vehicle’s commercial introduction some 13 months ago—well before its engines demonstrated an annoying propensity to spontaneously combust. (Not to worry, says GM’s public relations team: the engines don’t seem to catch fire while being driven, only an hour or two after they’ve been parked in the garage.) Recognizing that that qualifier hasn’t been reassuring enough, GM is now offering to buy back any Chevy Volt it has ever sold, which doesn’t bode well for the bottom line, but also affirms how few of these Government Motors show pieces have even sold.

That grim analysis is the basis for Lane’s preference for government divestment now. There is more downside risk than upside potential. It is an argument based on market-timing, rather than on the principle that bad things happen when the government has a stake in the outcome of a race that it can influence. Sure, the administration would love to divest of GM at a profit to taxpayers. But the longer it is allowed to wait for that train to arrive, the greater the temptation to grease the skids.

The government should divest now. It should have divested in June, when it was first legally permissible to do so.  But the administration (following, by logic, what would have been Lane’s advice at the time) rolled the dice, expecting the stock value to rise. Instead it fell. And then there was this.

But my bigger problem is with Lane’s proposal for a managed divestment.  He writes:

It’s time to cut our losses.  Treasury should start selling its stake in GM.

And I know just the buyer: GM. The company is sitting on more than $33 billion in cash, about triple the market value of Treasury’s 500 million shares, which is roughly $10.8 billion.

Though GM wants to dedicate much of its cash to shoring up its pension plan, it could still absorb most or all of Treasury’s shares, even if Treasury charges a modest premium over the current market price, as it should.

Lane proposes this under the guise of some perverse fealty to a “free-enterprise economy,” as it would spare shareholders from the stock price-depressing impact of an unnatural 500 million share dump. But those shareholders knew the risks they were taking when they purchased GM stock in the first place. They certainly knew that the largest single shareholder didn’t intend to hold its position for very long. Lane’s argument for protecting those shareholders in the name of free-enterprise in unconvincing, if not misplaced.

Furthermore, Lane’s zeal for sticking it to GM seems to eclipse any real commitment to free markets. Forcing GM to divert resources from where management wants to commit them in order to achieve some favorable political outcome (a smaller taxpayer loss) is just as coercive as some of the administration’s actions on the road to GM’s nationalization in the first place.

GM should not be entitled to any favors or exceptional treatment by virtue of its ownership structure. To be certain of that, it should be 100 privatized yesterday. But likewise, GM should not be subject to compensatory or otherwise countervailing policies designed to punish or remove any perceived advantage. For starters, it is impossible to measure the benefits received or the penalties suffered with any precision. Demanding that GM not be exposed to special treatment goes in both directions.

 

The Euro Crisis in Prose and Poetry

The European debt crisis is inspiring public radio to literary analysis. Last week NPR’s Planet Money put the French-German relationship into a “threepenny opera”:

All

Everyone is counting on you
You’ve got the money
We’ve got the debt (Oh yes, we’ve got a lot of debt!)
And do we need a bailout—you bet

Germany

Zat’s it, I’ve had enough
Looks like it’s time now for me to leave…

France

Oh?

Germany

Vhy is ze door locked? You must let me out.

France

Dear when the times are tough
It’s better to give zan to receive

Then Monday Marketplace Radio turned to classics professor Emily Allen Hornblower and economist Bill Lastrapes to discuss Greek debt as classical tragedy—Oedipus? The ant and the grasshopper?

Loyal Cato readers will recognize Bill Lastrapes as the coauthor of the much-discussed Cato Working Paper “Has the Fed Been a Failure?

And then, if you prefer prose and sober analysis to literary analogies, let me recommend Holman Jenkins’s perceptive column on why Europe hasn’t solved its crisis yet, which unfortunately appeared in the less-read Saturday edition of the Wall Street Journal. (OK, not less read than Cato-at-Liberty, but probably less read than the weekday Journal.)

Neither leader has an incentive to sacrifice what have become vital and divergent interests to produce a credible bailout plan for Europe. To simplify, German voters don’t want to bail out French banks, and the French government can’t afford to bail out French banks, when and if the long-awaited Greek default is allowed to happen….

There is another savior in the wings, of course, the European Central Bank. But the ECB has no incentive to betray in advance its willingness to get France and Germany off the hook by printing money to keep Europe’s heavily indebted governments afloat. Yet all know this is the outcome politicians are stalling for. This is the outcome markets are relying on, and why they haven’t crashed.

All are waiting for some market ruction hairy enough that the central bank will cast aside every political and legal restraint in order to save the euro….

And then the crisis will be over? Not by a long shot.

All these “solvent” countries and their banks will be dependent on the ECB to keep them “solvent,” a reality that can only lead to entrenched inflation across the European economy. That is, unless these governments undertake heroic reforms quickly to restore themselves to the good graces of the global bond market so they can stand up again without the ECB’s visible help.

It’s just conceivable that this might happen—that countries on the ECB life-support might put their nose to the grindstone to make good on their debts, held by ECB and others. Or they might just resume the game of chicken with German taxpayers, albeit in a new form, implicitly demanding that Germany bail out the ECB before the bank is forced thoroughly to debauch the continent’s common currency, the euro.

Should American Taxpayers Finance another Big Fat Greek Bailout?

It appears that American taxpayers are about to subsidize another Greek bailout (via the Keystone Cops at the IMF). This is way beyond economically foolish. It is also morally offensive.

To turn Winston Churchill’s famous quote upside down, “Never have so many paid so much to subsidize such an undeserving few.”

Let’s start with a few facts:

  • Greece’s GDP is roughly equal to the GDP of Maryland.
  • Greece’s population is roughly equal to the population of Ohio.
  • Despite that small size, in both terms of population and economic output, Greece already has received a bailout of about $150 billion (actual amount fluctuates with the exchange rate).
  • Don’t forget the indirect bailout resulting from purchases of Greek government bonds by the European Central Bank.
  • Now Greece is angling for another bailout of about $150 billion.

Is there any possible justification for throwing good money after bad with another bailout? Well, if you’re a politician from Germany or France and your big banks (i.e., some of your major campaign contributors) foolishly bought lots of government bonds from Greece, the answer might be yes. After all, screwing taxpayers to benefit insiders is a longstanding tradition in Europe.

But from a taxpayer perspective, either in Europe or the United States, the answer is no. Or, to be more technical and scientific, the answer is “Heck no, are you friggin’ out of your mind?!”

Consider these fun facts from a recent column by John Lott and then decide whether the corrupt politicians of Greece (and the special interest groups that receive handouts and subsidies from the Greek government) deserve to have their hands in the pockets of American taxpayers:

Despite Greece’s promises, government spending is up over last year’s already bloated levels, the deficit is bigger than ever, and it has utterly failed to meet the promised sell-off of some government assets. Not a single public bureaucrat has been laid off so far. …Greece can pay off €300 of the €347 billion debt by selling off shares the government owns in publicly traded companies and much of its real estate holdings. The government owns stock in casinos, hotels, resorts, railways, docks, as well as utilities providing electricity and water. But Greek unions fiercely oppose even partial privatizations. Rolling blackouts are promised this week to dissuade the government from selling of even 17 percent of its stake in the Public Power Corporation. …Greeks apparently believe that they have Europe and the world over a barrel, that they can make the rest of the world pay their bills by threatening to default. Greece’s default would be painful for everyone, but for Europe and the United States, indeed for the world, the alternative would be even worse. If politicians in Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and other countries think that their bills will be picked up by taxpayers in other countries, they won’t control their spending and they won’t sell off assets to pay off these debts. Countries such as Greece have to be convinced that they will bear a real cost if they don’t fix their financial houses while they still have the assets to cover their debts. …The real problem is the incentives we are giving to other countries. We have to make sure that “Kicking the can down the road” isn’t an option.

Just for good measure, here are a few more interesting factoids in a Wall Street Journal column by Holman Jenkins.

[Greece is] one of the most corrupt, crony-ridden, patronage-ridden, inefficient, silly economies in Christendom. …The state railroad maintains a payroll four times larger than its ticket sales. When a military officer dies, his pension continues for his unwed daughter as long as she remains unwed. Various workers are allowed to retire with a full state pension at age 45.

To be blunt, Greek politicians have miserably failed. Wait, that’s not right. You can’t say someone has failed when they haven’t even tried. Let’s be more accurate and say that Greek politicians have succeeded. They have scammed money from taxpayers in other nations to prop up a venal and corrupt system of patronage and spoils. Sure, they’ve made a few cosmetic changes and trimmed around the edges, but handouts from abroad have enabled them to perpetuate a bloated state. And now they’re using a perverse form of blackmail (aided and abetted by big banks) to seek even more money.

Let’s now re-ask the earlier question: Should American taxpayer finance the corrupt big-government policies of Greece?

  • Or perhaps we should think like economists, so let’s rephrase the question: Should we misallocate capital so that funds are diverted from private investment to corrupt Greek politicians?
  • Or maybe we should think like parents who have to worry about spoiling a child and the signal that sends to the other kids, so let’s ask the question this way: Should we encourage bad behavior in Spain, Italy, Portugal, etc, by giving another bailout to Greece’s corrupt politicians?
  • Or should we think about this issue from the perspective of addiction counselors and rephrase the question: Should we reward self-destructive behavior by providing more money to corrupt political elites in Greece?
  • Or how about we think like moral human beings, and ask the real question: Should we take money from people who earned it and give it to people who think they are entitled to live at the expense of others?

Since we paraphrased Churchill earlier, let’s answer these questions by butchering Shakespeare: “A bailout from every angle would smell to high Heaven.”

I wrote back in February of 2010 that a Greek bailout would be a mistake and every development since that time has confirmed that initial commentary.

But that doesn’t matter. Politicians have a different way of looking at things. They look at a policy and wonder whether it increases their power and generates campaign contributions. And when you understand their motives, you begin to realize why they will answer yes to the previous set of questions.

The “I-Told-You-So” Blog Post about the Completely Predictable Failure of the Greek Bailout

Way back in February of 2010, I wrote that a Greek bailout would be a failure. Not surprisingly, the bureaucrats at the International Monetary Fund and the political elite from other European nations ignored my advice and gave tens of billions of dollars to Greece’s corrupt politicians.

The bailout happened in part because politicians and international bureaucrats (when they’re not getting arrested for molesting hotel maids) have a compulsion to squander other people’s money. But it also should be noted that the Greek bailout was a way of indirectly bailing out the big European banks that recklessly lent money to a profligate government (as explained here).

At the risk of sounding smug, let’s look at my four predictions from February 2010 and see how I did.

1. The first prediction was that “Bailing out Greece will reward over-spending politicians and make future fiscal crises more likely.” That certainly seems to be the case since Europe is in even worse shape, so I’ll give myself a gold star.

2. The second prediction was that “Bailing out Greece will reward greedy and short-sighted interest groups, particularly overpaid government workers.” Given the refusal of Greek politicians to follow through with promised cuts and privatizations, largely because of domestic resistance, it seems I was right again. As such, I’ll give myself another pat on the back.

3. My third prediction was that “Bailing out Greece will encourage profligacy in Spain, Italy, and other nations.” Again, events certainly seem to confirm what I warned about last year, so let’s put this one in the win column as well.

4. Last but not least, my fourth prediction was that “Bailing out Greece is not necessary to save the euro.” Well, since everybody is now talking about two possible non-bailout options—either a Greek default (a “restructuring” in PC terms) or a Greek return to using the drachma—and acknowledging that neither is a threat to the euro, it seems I batted 4-4 in my predictions.

But there’s no reward for being right. Especially when making such obvious predictions about the failure of big-government policies. So now we’re back where we were early last year, with Greece looking for another pile of money. Here’s a brief blurb from Reuters.

The European Union is racing to draft a second bailout package for Greece to release vital loans next month and avert the risk of the euro zone country defaulting, EU officials said on Monday.

If this second bailout happens (and it probably will), then I will make four new predictions. But I don’t need to spell them out because they’ll be the same ones I made last year.

We’ve reached the lather-rinse-repeat stage of fiscal collapse for the welfare state.

Ben Bernanke: Central Planner

There’s a great piece in the spring issue of The Independent Review on Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke by San Jose State Professor Jeffrey Rogers Hummel.  Although a bit long, its well worth the read for anyone wanting to understand both Bernanke’s thinking and his actions during and since the financial crisis.

First, Prof. Hummel discusses the differences between Bernanke’s and Milton Friedman’s explanations for the Great Depression.  Those that debate whether Bernanke’s actions, especially the quantitative easings, would be approved of by Friedman will get a lot out of this discussion.  From this comparison, you get the point that Friedman was concerned about overall credit conditions and liquidity, whereas Bernanke is less focused on the monetary factors than on the impairment of credit intermediation, which explains his support of selective bailouts.

Hummel’s comparison of Greenspan and Bernanke is also insightful, particularly since many (myself included) often lump the two’s policies together.  From the analysis, it is clear that Greenspan falls into the Friedman camp, his “rescues” were of the financial system in general, and not of specific firms.

One might say a bailout is a bailout, so what’s the difference between rescuing the system and rescuing individual firms within the system?  Certainly that’s a view I have some sympathy for.  The “Greenspan put” was as much a contributor to reckless risk-taking as anything else.  Hummel, however, discuses why this difference ultimately matters, and why it shows Bernanke to fit the role of economic central planner.  In short, the facts are presented that during the financial crisis, Bernanke did not actually increase overall liquidity by much, he re-directed it to those firms he deemed most important.  This process of reducing liquidity to some sectors while re-directing it to others, arguably less efficient sectors, goes a considerable distance in explaining some of the decline in both aggregate demand and consumption in 2008.

Again, the piece is one of the more accessible and insightful I’ve read on Bernanke in quite a while.