Tag: Bailout

What Gets You Most Upset about the TARP Bailout, the Lying, the Corruption, or the Economic Damage?

As an economist, I should probably be most agitated about the economic consequences of TARP, such as moral hazard and capital malinvestment. But when I read stories about how political insiders (both in government and on Wall Street) manipulate the system for personal advantage, I get even more upset.

Yes, TARP was economically misguided. But the bailout also was fundamentally corrupt, featuring special favors for the well-heeled. I don’t like it when lower-income people use the political system to take money from upper-income people, but it is downright nauseating and disgusting when upper-income people use the coercive power of government to steal money from lower-income people.

Now, to add insult to injury, we’re being fed an unsavory gruel of deception as the political class tries to cover its tracks. Here’s a story from Bloomberg about the Treasury Department’s refusal to obey the law and comply with a FOIA request. A Bloomberg reporter wanted to know about an insider deal to put taxpayers on the line to guarantee a bunch of Citigroup-held securities, but the government thinks that people don’t have a right to know how their money is being funneled to politically-powerful and well-connected insiders.

The late Bloomberg News reporter Mark Pittman asked the U.S. Treasury in January 2009 to identify $301 billion of securities owned by Citigroup Inc. that the government had agreed to guarantee. He made the request on the grounds that taxpayers ought to know how their money was being used. More than 20 months later, after saying at least five times that a response was imminent, Treasury officials responded with 560 pages of printed-out e-mails – none of which Pittman requested. They were so heavily redacted that most of what’s left are everyday messages such as “Did you just try to call me?” and “Monday will be a busy day!” None of the documents answers Pittman’s request for “records sufficient to show the names of the relevant securities” or the dates and terms of the guarantees.

Here’s another reprehensible example. The Treasury Department, for all intents and purposes, prevaricated when it recently claimed that the AIG bailout would cost “only” $5 billion. This has triggered some pushback from Capitol Hill GOPers, as reported by the New York Times, but it is highly unlikely that anyone will suffer any consequences for this deception. To paraphrase Glenn Reynolds, “laws, honesty, and integrity, like taxes, are for the little people.”

The United States Treasury concealed $40 billion in likely taxpayer losses on the bailout of the American International Group earlier this month, when it abandoned its usual method for valuing investments, according to a report by the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. …“The American people have a right for full and complete disclosure about their investment in A.I.G.,” Mr. Barofsky said, “and the U.S. government has an obligation, when they’re describing potential losses, to give complete information.” …“If a private company filed information with the government that was just as misleading and disingenuous as what Treasury has done here, you’d better believe there would be calls for an investigation from the S.E.C. and others,” said Representative Darrell Issa, the senior Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He called the Treasury’s October report on A.I.G. “blatant manipulation.” Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, said he thought “administration officials are trying so hard to put a positive spin on program losses that they played fast and loose with the numbers.” He said it reminded him of “misleading” claims that General Motors had paid back its rescue loans with interest ahead of schedule.

P.S. Allow me to preempt some emails from people who will argue that TARP was a necessary evil. Even for those who think the financial system had to be recapitalized, there was no need to bail out specific companies. The government could have taken the approach used during the S&L bailout about 20 years ago, which was to shut down the insolvent institutions. Depositors were bailed out, often by using taxpayer money to bribe a solvent institution to take over the failed savings & loan, but management and shareholders were wiped out, thus  preventing at least one form of moral hazard.

GOP’s Pledge to America

The House Republicans’ release of its “Pledge to America” has been met with criticism from across the ideological spectrum. While excoriation from the left was inevitable, those who were hoping that the GOP would set out a detailed agenda for limiting government were also not satisfied.

The 48-page document contains more pictures of Republican members of Congress than it does evidence that the GOP is seriously prepared to cut spending. While the introductory commentary is designed to appeal to the tea party movement, the actual “plan” to return budgetary sanity to Washington is both timid and incomplete.

The following are some thoughts on the pledge’s “plan to stop out of control spending and reduce the size of government”:

  • The document immediately notes that the “lack of a credible plan” to tackle the mounting federal debt causes uncertainty for employers and investors. The problem is the GOP leadership doesn’t have a credible plan to address the debt, or at least this document doesn’t offer one.
  • It disingenuously promises to “cut government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels” when in fact it only intends to do so for a small portion of the overall federal budget. The reduction would apply to discretionary, non-security spending, which only accounts for about 15 percent of total federal spending.
  • Not only does the GOP punt on the big-ticket programs like Social Security and Medicare, the document devotes an entire section to maintaining the interventionist foreign policy that is helping to bankrupt the country. The GOP doesn’t appear to understand that the American people are having an increasingly difficult time understanding why the government continues to take bricks out of our own economy in order to build nations around the globe.
  • The document says that the GOP will “root out government waste.” Waste goes with government the way peanut butter goes with jelly. Nancy Pelosi has made the same promise, which demonstrates the vacuous nature of the proposal.
  • The GOP says it will cut the operations budget of Congress. That’s fine, but the legislative branch’s budget is only about $5 billion.
  • Calling for an end to the federal government’s control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is a good idea. But that’s an easy position. They should instead be calling for an end to the government’s entire disastrous role in subsidizing homeownership.
  • The document calls for a freeze in federal non-security hiring. One would have thought the GOP would at least address exorbitant federal civilian employee pay. Freezing (or reducing) federal employment would take care of itself by eliminating agencies and programs, which is something the document doesn’t lay out a plan to do.
  • The GOP proposes to continue holding weekly votes to cut spending via its YouCut initiative. It’s a fine idea, but most of the cuts offered for consideration thus far have been relatively insignificant. For example, one of the cuts being proposed this week would “reduce funding for the wild horse and burro program to previously projected levels.” Not only would this only save $280 million over ten years, the GOP couldn’t even find the nerve to call for its outright abolition.
  • One piece of good news is that the GOP explicitly calls for the repeal of Obamacare.

With the Democrats content to irresponsibly promise more free lunches in the face of an unsustainable fiscal situation, it would have been refreshing for the House Republicans to square with the American people. However, with this document the GOP largely fell back on limited government platitudes.

Federal Bailout of GM Still Horribly Wrong

Our friends at The Economist magazine usually talk good sense about free trade and free markets, which makes their retrospective endorsement of the government bailout of General Motors all the more disappointing.

In a leader in the current issue, the editors write that critics of the bailout (count Cato scholars among them) owe President Obama an apology. “His takeover of GM could have gone horribly wrong, but it has not,” they opine.

The Economist argues that, in contrast to state coddling of industries in, say, France, President Obama has driven a hard bargain by requiring GM to fire top management, cut jobs, close plants, and reduce its brand names. The magazine grants that the president’s labor-union allies won special concessions that came at the expense of bondholders, but “by and large Mr. Obama has not used his stakes in GM and Chrysler for political ends.”

First, it’s a pretty low bar to say an intervention was right because it did not go horribly wrong. The editors then too quickly brush over the horrible injustice of stiffing the taxpayers of Indiana and others who bought GM bonds and should have been in line ahead of the more politically connected United Auto Workers union.

To curry favor with organized labor, President Obama put $50 billion of taxpayer resources at risk. A post-bankruptcy GM turned a profit last quarter, along with most other automakers, but it is doubtful its anticipated IPO in the next few months will raise anything like the $80 billion or more needed to return the “investment” to taxpayers.

On top of that, the bailout of GM went far beyond any valid power granted to the federal government by the U.S. Constitution, and it blatantly favored two companies over a multitude of others in the very competitive automobile market.

Remind me again who owes whom an apology?

They Should Earn Our Trust

Ronald Brownstein points to the many measures showing Americans have lost confidence in their government and in some private institutions.  He concludes that these signs of distrust “point toward a widely shared conviction that the country’s public and private leadership is protecting its own interest at the expense of average (and even comfortable) Americans.”

Maybe. But there is another interpretation. Consider the recent performance of the government and of more than a few businesses. Most Americans do not pay attention to the details of governing. They have other things to occupy their time. They do, however, notice important matters like war and the economy. Since about 2004, Americans have steadily soured on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The economy remains weak despite promises to the contrary from the current administration. Banks and auto companies flouted the presumed rules of the capitalist game by seeking and taking bailouts when bankruptcy loomed.

The last nine years have given the public little reason to have confidence in the performance of the federal government and of some business leaders. The lack of public confidence Brownstein notes might better be seen as a rational response to what is becoming a decade of incompetence in DC combined with bad faith elsewhere.

Another Government Employee Bailout

President Obama is proposing giving the states another $50 billion. However, this would amount to another bailout for state and local government employees and their unions. The president claims that more deficit spending is necessary to sustain the nascent economic recovery. But the only thing the money would sustain is the excessive wages and benefits government employees enjoy at the expense of the private sector.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average state and local government employee receives 45 percent more in total compensation per hour worked than the average private-sector employee. Perhaps we should cut generous government wages and benefits rather than putting the federal government further into debt?

Total compensation for state and local workers is more than $1.1 trillion a years. So loosely speaking we could simply cut compensation by less than five percent for state and local governments to save the $50 billion they are in need of.

Of more fundamental concern is the continued relegation of the states to being administrative outposts of the federal government. The employment of firefighters, teachers, and police officers is an issue for the states to be concerned with. However, so long as the federal government continues to overstep its constitutional bounds, the states will have little incentive to tackle issues like excessive employee compensation. State and local policymakers can avoid the hassle of taking on the government employee unions by cashing Uncle Sam’s checks instead.

As the following chart shows, federal aid to state and local governments has almost doubled in real terms over the past decade:

It’s not a coincidence that the states find themselves in a fiscal bind. The increasing dependency on the federal government has contributed to the states’ dereliction of duty when it comes to keeping their fiscal houses in order. As this essay argues, reviving fiscal federalism is critical to getting governments at all levels in the United States to clean up their fiscal messes.

Gov. Bob McDonnell Needs to Lead on the Budget and Education

Gov. McDonnell just signed a bill that will give a tax credit to the film industry. They will shell out up to $2.5 million to movie-makers in the first year and up to $5 million thereafter. Proponents say it might save money. Unfortunately, the evidence from other states suggests it will lose money.

At a time of economic turmoil and budget problems, the Governor wants to lose money by giving a tax credit to the film industry. It’s even refundable, which in normal-talk means the state will send a check to a film executive even if he doesn’t owe any taxes; that’s a straight BAILOUT, not a tax credit. The last thing Virginia needs is another corporate bailout.

What is wrong with our Commonwealth? And what in the world is Governor McDonnell thinking?

There is one tax credit that has consistently proven to save money and increase achievement in public schools: education tax credits.

Florida recently expanded its successful education tax credit program to $140 million with the support of 42 percent of Democrats and almost every Republican. The program was found by the government to save $1.49 for every dollar invested in the credits. And the official academic researcher for the program just found that it significantly increases public school performance.

Strangely, education tax credits are not on the Governor’s agenda. Why?

Why is a Governor who had the good sense to appoint a true education reformer, Gerard Robinson, as the Secretary of Education not out front leading the movement for effective, efficient investment in education?

Look to Pennsylvania, to Georgia, Iowa, Rhode Island, Illinois, Arizona, any of the nine states supporting twelve education tax credit programs to see the new, bipartisan wave of education reform. A toothless Virginia charter school law will do nothing to improve education or save money. And the constitution won’t allow a strong charter law.

We need to save money, not waste it on another corporate bailout. We need to increase achievement.

We need leadership, Governor. We need education tax credits in Virginia. Now.

Congress Begins Conference on Financial Regulation

Today begins the televised political theatre that Barney Frank has been waiting months for:  the first public meeting of the House and Senate conferees on the two financial regulation bills.  While there are a handful of important differences between the House and Senate bills, these differences are overshadowed by what the bills have in common.  The most important, and tragic, commonality is that both bills ignore the real causes of the financial crisis and focus on convenient political targets.

As our financial system was brought to its knees by an exploding housing bubble, fueled by government mandates and distortions, one would think, just maybe, that Congress would roll back these distortions.  Despite their role in contributing to the crisis and the size of their bailout, however, neither bill barely mentions Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.   Except, of course, to continue their favored and privileged status, such as their exemption from a proposed new “consumer protection” agency.  What we really need is a new “taxpayer protection” agency.

Nor will either bill change the government’s meddling in what is probably the most important price in the economy:  the interest rate.  Given the overwhelming evidence that loose monetary policy was a direct cause of the housing bubble, one might expect Congress to spend time and effort preventing the Fed from creating another bubble.  Not only does Congress ignore the issue, the Senate won’t even allow GAO to look at the Fed’s conduct of monetary policy.

Instead of spending the next few weeks gazing into the camera, Congress should stop and gaze into the mirror.  This was a crisis conceived and born in Washington DC.  The Rayburn building serving as the proverbial back-seat of the housing bubble.