Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

The Joys of Stock Ownership

I happen to own shares in Bank of America, so I’ve just received a proxy statement for the upcoming annual meeting. The Board of Directors recommends that I authorize them to vote my shares FOR an uncontested slate of candidates for the board. Usually I go along with such proxy requests.

But this time I thought: Why should these people get something like $250,000 a year to take orders from President Obama and Secretary Geithner? It’s become pretty clear that the Obama administration intends to use the bailout money to control private companies. He intends to tell companies what cars to make, how much to lend, how much to charge for credit cards, what to pay their executives, what kinds of bonuses are acceptable, and other crucial management decisions.

So I decided to write in “Barack Obama” for all 18 positions on the Board of Directors. However, neither the paper ballot nor the online ballot allowed for write-ins. I guess the official slate will win. But make no mistake. Obama’s the boss.

Tarred by TARP

Government-backed equity was offered to adequately capitalized banks in order to remove the “stigma” from banks receiving TARP funds, and the management of these institutions took the bait and accepted the money.

Surprise, surprise: now they discover that the money came with strings.

Some banks want to pay back the TARP money to extricate themselves from government restrictions on compensation and pressure to make loans the banks view as unprofitable. Treasury Secretary Geithner has made it clear that the decision to pay back the funds early won’t be left to the banks, but to the Treasury: “My basic obligation is to make sure the system as a whole … has the ability to provide the credit that recovery requires.”

The banking system has thus become a tool for the government to further its policies. And the bankers themselves put their institutions in that position. While taxpayers may understandably feel the bankers got their comeuppance, there are at least two major problems with the Bush/Obama policy.

First, Mr. Geithner has misdiagnosed the problem.

We are in recovery from the effects of the bursting of a massive housing and finance bubble funded by debt. That boom in turn financed a consumption binge of monumental proportions.

The only resolution of a spending binge is restraint in the form of saving. Recovery requires not more credit and another boom, but a dose of economic sobriety.

Individuals and firms know that and are de-leveraging – unwinding what they now realize is excessive debt. That will take the rest of this year and the better part of 2010. Overall, credit is down because demand is down.

Second, and even more disturbing: it appears that the Obama Administration wants to control the financial sector in order to gain control over what Lenin called the “Commanding Heights” of the U.S. economy: the major industries and sources of employment. The auto industry is a prime example, and one in which the administration has involved itself directly. It is also pressuring major recipients of TARP funds to ease the terms of the loans they have made to firms such as Chrysler. Treasury is attempting to use the banks to conduct fiscal policy through credit allocation.

The bankers taking TARP funds got their firms into a mess and deserve no sympathy. Anyone believing in free markets, however, must oppose this power grab by the Obama Administration.

Let the banks pay the funds back and let it be a lesson for CEOs and their stockholders: If you take government funds, you have taken on an unreliable business partner.

Cato and the Bailouts: A Correction for the NY Times ‘Economix’ Blog

At the New York Times Economix blog, economist Nancy Folbre of the University of Massachusetts writes:

The libertarian Cato Institute often emphasizes the issue of corporate welfare, but it’s remained remarkably quiet so far on the topic of bailouts.

Excuse me?

Since she linked to one of our papers on corporate welfare, we assume she’s visited our site. How, then, could she get such an impression? Cato scholars have been deploring bailouts since last September. (Actually, since the Chrysler bailout of 1979, but we’ll skip forward to the recent avalanche of Bush-Obama bailouts.) Just recently, for instance, in – ahem – the New York Times, senior fellow William Poole implored, “Stop the Bailouts.” I wonder if our commentaries started with my blog post “Bailout Nation?” last September 8? Or maybe with Thomas Humphrey and Richard Timberlake’s “The Imperial Fed,” deploring the Federal Reserve’s help for Bear Stearns, on April 14 of last year?

Cato scholars appeared on more than 90 radio and television programs to criticize the bailouts during the last quarter of 2008. Here’s a video compilation of some of those appearances.

Folbre complains that some people seem more concerned about welfare – TANF, in the latest federal acronym – than about welfare for bankers – TARP. Google says that there are 138 references to TANF over the past 13 years or so on the Cato website, and 231 references to TARP in the past few months.

Now she has a legitimate point. Welfare for the rich is at least as bad as welfare for the poor. And as much as welfare for the poor has cost taxpayers, the new welfare for banks, insurance companies, mortgage companies, and automobile industries is costing us more. Samuel Brittan of the Financial Times has written that “reassignment,” an economic policy that changes individuals’ ranking in the hierarchy of incomes, is far more offensive than a policy of redistribution, which in his idealized vision would merely raise the incomes of the poorest members of society. By that standard, taxing some businesses and individuals to subsidize the high incomes of others is certainly offensive. Of course, Brittan underemphasized the harm done by welfare to people who become trapped in dependency. But there’s good reason to oppose both TANF and TARP, and Cato scholars have done both.

Lest the good work of Cato’s New Media Manager Chris Moody go under-utilized, here’s a probably incomplete guide to Cato scholars’ comments on the bailouts of the past few months. (Note that it doesn’t include blog posts, of which there have been many.) Quiet? I don’t think so:

Articles:

September 9, 2008, “Fannie/Freddie Bailout Baloney,” Gerald P. O’Driscoll Jr., New York Post.

September 18, 2008, “Why Bailouts Scare Stocks,” Alan Reynolds, New York Post.

September 17, 2008, “Bailout-Mania,” Jagadeesh Gokhale and Kent Smetters, Forbes.com.

October 1, 2008, “The Bailout’s Essential Brazenness,” Jay Cochran, Cato.org.

October 3, 2008, “The Big Bailout – What’s Next?” Warren Coats, Cato.org

October 13, 2008, “Should Taxpayers Fund the American Dream?,” Daniel J. Mitchell, Los Angeles Times.

October 20, 2008, “Is the Bailout Constitutional?,” Robert A. Levy, Legal Times.

November 11, 2008, “There’s Nothing Wrong with a “Big Two”,” Daniel J. Ikenson, New York Daily News.

November 21, 2008, “Don’t Bail Out the Big Three,” Daniel J. Ikenson, The American.

November 5, 2008, “Is it Constitutional?,” Richard W. Rahn, Washington Times.

December 14, 2008, “Consequences of the Bailout,” Richard W. Rahn, Washington Times.

December 5, 2008, “Bail Out Car Buyers?,” Daniel J. Ikenson, Los Angeles Times.

December 3, 2008, “Big Three Ask for Money — Again,” Daniel J. Ikenson, Los Angeles Times.

December 10, 2008, “Dissecting the Bailout Plan,” Alan Reynolds, Wall Street Journal.

January 14, 2009, “Bailing out the States,” Michael New, Washington Times.

February 28, 2009, “Stop the Bailouts,” William Poole, The New York Times.

Papers:

Bailout or Bankruptcy?,” by Jeffrey A. Miron (Cato Journal, Winter 2009)

Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae: An Exit Strategy for the Taxpayer,” by Arnold Kling (September 8, 2008)

Financial Crisis and Public Policy,” by Jagadeesh Gokhale (March 23, 2009)

Bright Lines and Bailouts: To Bail or Not To Bail, That Is the Question,” by Vern McKinley and Gary Gegenheimer (April 20, 2009)

On Television and Radio:

Dan Ikenson discusses auto bailout

September 30, 2008 Daniel J. Mitchell discusses the failed bailout on NPR Affiliate KPCC’s “The Patt Morrison Show”

September 29, 2008 Peter Van Doren discusses government bailouts on WTTG FOX 5.

September 29, 2008 Daniel J. Mitchell discusses the failed bailout on NPR Affiliate KPCC’s “The Patt Morrison Show”

September 26, 2008 Jagadeesh Gokhale discusses the bailout on BNN (CANADA)

September 26, 2008 Steve H. Hanke discusses the bailout on BBC Radio’s “Have Your Say”

September 25, 2008 Patrick Basham discusses the bailout on Radio America’s “The Michael Reagan Show”

September 24, 2008 William A. Niskanen discusses government bailouts on WUSA 9

September 24, 2008 William Poole discusses government bailouts on NPR DC Affiliate WAMU’s “The Diane Rehm Show”

September 23, 2008 William A. Niskanen discusses government bailouts on CNBC’s “Closing Bell”

September 23, 2008Bert Ely discusses government bailouts on WOR’s “The John Gambling Show”

September 22, 2008 Daniel J. Mitchell discusses government bailouts on the CBS “Early Show”

September 22, 2008 William Poole discusses government bailouts on Bloomberg Live.

September 22, 2008 William A. Niskanen discusses government bailouts of financial institutions on Bloomberg TV

September 22, 2008 Steve H. Hanke discusses government bailouts of financial institutions on Bloomberg Radio’s “On the Money”

September 19, 2008 Daniel J. Mitchell discusses government bailouts on Federal News Radio

September 18, 2008 Daniel J. Mitchell discusses the AIG bailout on KTAR’s “Ankarlo Mornings”

September 17, 2008 Daniel J. Mitchell discusses the AIG bailout on WTTG FOX 5

September 17, 2008 Daniel J. Mitchell discusses the AIG bailout on FOX’s “America’s Election HQ”

September 10, 2008 Daniel J. Mitchell discusses a proposed bailout for the auto industry on Marketplace Radio.

October 24, 2008 Gerald P. O’Driscoll Jr. discusses the fallout of the bailout on FOX Business Network’s “Cavuto”

October 15, 2008 Daniel J. Mitchell discusses the bailout on Federal News Radio

October 14, 2008 Daniel J. Mitchell discusses the financial crisis on CNN’s “American Morning”

October 14, 2008 Daniel J. Mitchell discusses the banking crisis on BBC World

October 14, 2008 Gerald P. O’Driscoll Jr. discusses the banking crisis on WBAL Radio. (Baltimore, MD)

October 13, 2008 Daniel J. Mitchell discusses the financial crisis on the FOX Business Network

October 9, 2008 Jim Powell discusses the economy on FOX Business

October 9, 2008 Daniel J. Mitchell discusses the current treasury plan on Reuters TV.

October 9, 2008 Daniel J. Mitchell discusses the bailout on the WIBA’s “Upfront w/Vicki McKenna” (Madison, WI)

October 2, 2008 Daniel J. Mitchell discusses the bailout bill on WRVA’s “Morning Show” (West Virginia)

October 1, 2008 Daniel J. Mitchell discusses the bailout plan on CNBC’s “On the Money.”

October 1, 2008 Daniel J. Mitchell discusses the bailout plan on CNBC’s “Power Lunch”

October 1, 2008 William Poole discusses the bailout on KMOX’s “The Charlie Brennan Show” (St. Louis, MO)

October 1, 2008 Daniel J. Mitchell discusses the failed bailout on WTOP Radio (Washington, D.C.)

Congressional Bonuses

The Wall Street Journal reports,

While Congress has been flaying companies for giving out bonuses while on the government dole, lawmakers have a longstanding tradition of rewarding their own employees with extra cash — also courtesy of taxpayers.

And at the very time that Congress was mishandling the financial crisis and trying to direct popular outrage at Wall Street, not Washington, the bonuses were getting bigger:

Capitol Hill bonuses in 2008 were among the highest in years, according to LegiStorm, an organization that tracks payroll data. The average House aide earned 17% more in the fourth quarter of the year, when the bonuses were paid, than in previous quarters, according to the data.

LegiStorm is a pretty scary website for congressional staff members and privacy advocates. It makes readily available not just staffers’ salaries but their financial disclosure forms, including their spouses’ sources of income, as the Washington Post reported this week. I used LegiStorm myself (or technically interns Schuyler Daum and Jonathan Slemrod did) to write about how the Republicans shoveled bonus money to their staff members before they lost control of committee budgets after the 2006 election. Now that bonuses have become a focus of outrage, maybe Congress should impose 90 percent clawbacks on the bonuses of congressional staffers — and bonuses to other federal employees. After all, they’ve mismanaged the government’s finances far worse than AIG employees mismanaged that company.

So Much for the Promise of Financial Transparency

President Barack Obama promised transparency and accountability for how the federal government spends the trillions – or is it quadrillions (I’ve lost count)? – in bail-out money, stimulus outlays, and expanded government programs.  Alas, his administration doesn’t seem interested in living up to his promises.

Reports ABC News:

The watchdog for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the government’s financial rescue plan, said today that the Treasury Department has not been cooperating with oversight efforts up to this point.

“We do not seem to be a priority for the Treasury Department,” the Congressional Oversight Panel’s Elizabeth Warren told a Senate Finance Committee hearing today.

“We have sent letters. We have requested that there be someone named so that we can get technical information. And so far, we have not been a first priority,” Warren said. “We use what you give us, and we will exercise the leverage given to us by Congress. In part, that’s why I’m here today. I’m here to talk to you about what’s happened so far, what we have discovered so far, the inquiries that we have in mid-stream and for which we continue to await responses.”

Warren, visibly frustrated with a lack of cooperation from the administration, emphasized, “This problem starts with Treasury.”

Obviously, this isn’t the first time that a presidential commitment has gone aglimmering.  But given the extraordinary opportunity for pervasive waste, fraud, and abuse in the tsunami of new federal spending, few presidential commitments have been as important.

Who’s Blogging about Cato

A few bloggers who wrote about Cato this week:

  • New York Times blogger Andrew C. Revkin wrote about Cato’s forthcoming full-page ad on climate change that will run in newspapers around the country next week.
  • Wes Messamore helped set the record straight: Cato scholars have criticized the growth of government regardless of who’s in power.
  • Brandon Dutcher posted Cato’s Monday podcast with Adam Schaeffer on universal pre-school.