Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Obama Financial Reform Plan Misses the Mark

The Obama Administration is presenting a misguided, ill-informed remake of our financial regulatory system that will likely increase the frequency and severity of future financial crisis. While our financial system, particularly our mortgage finance system, is broken, the Obama plan ignores the real flaws in our current structure, instead focusing on convenient targets.

Shockingly, the Obama plan makes no mention of those institutions at the very heart of the mortgage market meltdown – Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These two entities were the single largest source of liquidity for the subprime market during its height. In all likelihood, their ultimate cost to the taxpayer will exceed that of the TARP, once TARP repayments have begun. Any reform plan that leaves out Fannie and Freddie does not merit being taken seriously.

While the Administration plan recognizes the failure of the credit rating agencies, is appears to misunderstand the source of that failure: the rating agencies government created monopoly. Additional disclosure will not solve that problem. What is needed is an end to the exclusive government privileges that have been granted to the rating agencies. In addition, financial regulators should end the out-sourcing of their own due diligence to the rating agencies.

Instead of addressing our destructive federal policies at extending homeownership to households that cannot sustain it, the Obama plan calls for increased “consumer protections” in the mortgage industry. Sadly, the Administration misses the basic fact that the most important mortgage characteristic that is determinate of mortgage default is the borrower’s equity. However such recognition would also require admitting that the government’s own programs, such as the Federal Housing Administration, have been at the forefront of pushing unsustainable mortgage lending.

The Administration’s inability to admit to the failures of government regulation will only guarantee that the next failures will be even bigger than the current ones.

A Libertarian Dilemma

What is to be done with the nation’s largest financial institutions, 19 of which have been officially designated as “too big to fail?” When thus guaranteed government protection, such institutions can be expected to take excessive risk and generally operate recklessly. Profits on risky ventures remain privatized, while losses become socialized. That is what happens when you bet with other people’s (that is, taxpayers’) money. I have called the system “casino capitalism.”

The solution, of course, is to end the policy of “too big to fail.” That will not happen soon, however, and we will likely see the government’s safety net extended to more institutions before there is any prospect for its withdrawal. In the interim, the risk-taking appetite of the large banks must be constrained, that is, regulated. What should the classical liberal response be?

MIT’s Simon Johnson has argued, “Anything that is too big to fail is too big to exist.” He favors breaking these institutions up. Chicago’s Gary Becker has suggested imposing progressive capital requirements as a disincentive for financial services firms to grow large enough to become too big to fail. The larger the institution, the higher the required capital ratio.

What cannot in conscience be done is to apply presumptive free-market arguments to such entities. They are not being constrained by market forces. The market’s invisible hand has been replaced by the state’s protective embrace.

Fed to BoA: ‘We Will Not Leave You in the Lurch’

Thursday, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform questioned Ken Lewis about Bank of America’s purchase of Merrill Lynch and the subsequent injection of tens of billions of taxpayer funds into Bank of America.

While much of the hearing focused on Lewis’ leadership of Bank of America, the hearing also touched upon the more important questions of government regulators pressuring BoA to purchase Merrill even after BoA realized that Merrill’s losses were greater than expected.

One of the basic tenets of sound regulation, exercised in the public interest, is that regulators remain at “arm’s length” from the entities they regulate. As defined by Black’s Law Dictionary, “arm’s length” relates to “dealings between two parties who are not related or not on close terms and who are presumed to have roughly equal bargaining power; not involving a confidential relationship.”

If anything, it appears that BoA and the federal government were in a bear hug, rather than at arm’s length. As described in Lewis’ notes on one of his many conversations about the Merrill deal with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, Bernanke told Lewis, “We will not leave you in the lurch.” Given the funds subsequently injected into BoA, one can say that Chairman Bernanke is at least a man of his word.

One of the significant problems arising from extensive government ownership of private entities is that in regulating those entities, the government no longer has the ability to be a neutral, objective arbitrator. Whether it is BoA or GM, government officials will come under increasing pressure to see a positive return on the taxpayer’s investment. One should not be surprised if that pressure manifests itself by government officials favoring the very companies they have invested in.

While BoA has been saved, it appears that the rule of law has been “left in the lurch.”

Bachus Plan a Good Start toward Ending Bailouts

Today Congressman Spencer Bachus, along with several of the Republican members of the House Financial Services Committee, offered a plan for reforming our financial system and ending future government bailouts of the financial sector

At the heart of the financial crisis has been the Federal Reserve’s willingness to invoke its powers under Paragraph 13-3 of the Federal Reserve Act to bail out firms like Bear Stearns and AIG — all without a single vote from Congress or any form of public debate. Almost 10 months after the initial AIG bailout by the Fed, there is still no plan for resolving that firm, and no strategy for recovering the taxpayers investment.

While some might pretend that the Fed puts no taxpayer funds at risk under the use its 13-3 powers, it is the American taxpayer who ultimately stands behind any Federal Reserve actions. In focusing on 13-3, the Bachus proposal rightly targets the largest, and least accountable, source of the bailouts. The Bachus proposal would require the Treasury secretary to approve any 13-3 actions and allow Congress the ability to disapprove such actions. While a complete repeal of 13-3 would be preferred, the presented reforms are a step in the right direction.

Another feature of the Bachus plan is to require large, non-financial firms to be resolved under the bankruptcy code, and not under a regime of continuing bailouts or political manipulation. Despite whatever flaws it may have, the bankruptcy process is one that is separated from politics. As we have witnessed in the recent government restructuring of U.S. auto companies, allowing Washington to resolve firms is an invitation for violating contracts and rewarding political constituencies.

The Bachus plan also addresses the two institutions at the center of our mortgage crisis: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Their model of private profits and public losses has become an expensive one, with little public benefit. Any reform proposal that does not deal with Fannie and Freddie does not merit being called reform. The Bachus plan would rightly begin phasing out the privileged status of Fannie and Freddie.

Senators Want to Delay Housing Recovery

As discussed in a recent Bloomberg piece, several U.S. senators from both parties are pushing to almost double the recently enacted $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers to $15,000. The same senators are also pushing to remove the current income restrictions — $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 for couples — while also removing the first-time buyer requirement.

The intent of the increase, and the original credit, is to increase the demand for housing and to create a “bottom” to the housing market. The flaw of this approach is that it creates a false bottom, one characterized by government-inflated prices and not fundamentals. It was excessive government subsidies into housing that helped create the housing bubble, additional subsidies to re-inflate the bubble will only prolong the actual market adjustment.

If it were only a matter of prolonging the adjustment, then the huge cost of the tax credit might be easier to justify. Yet by encouraging increased housing production, the tax credit will increase supply when we already have a huge glut of housing. Despite housing starts being near 50-year lows, there is still too much construction going on. The way to spur demand in housing is the same way you spur demand in any market: you cut prices.

Removing the income limits makes clear the real intention of the tax credit, to help the wealthiest households. About three-fourths of existing families already fall under the income cap of $75,000. As we move up the income latter, home equity makes up a smaller percentage of one’s total wealth. The richest families can make do with a decline in their housing wealth and continue spending; they have other substantial sources of wealth. If we have learned anything from the housing boom and bust, it should be that continued government efforts to rearrange the housing market have been costly failures.

Public Tires of Wasteful “Stimulus” Spending

The president may believe that he’s created thousands (or is that millions?) of jobs, but the public doesn’t believe him.  In fact, according to Rasmussen Reports, a plurality of the public wants to drop the rest of the “stimulus” spending while keeping the tax cuts:

Forty-five percent (45%) of Americans say the rest of the new government spending authorized in the $787-billion economic stimulus plan should now be canceled. A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that just 36% disagree and 20% are not sure.

Just 20% of adults say the tax cuts included in the stimulus plan should be canceled while 55% disagree. The stimulus plan includes $288 billion in tax cuts.

While there is a wide partisan gap on the question of stimulus spending, there is little partisan disagreement on maintaining the tax cuts.

President Obama on Monday vowed to speed up the pace of stimulus spending and said the money will help “create or save” 600,000 more jobs this summer.

However, only 31% of Americans believe the new government spending in the stimulus package creates new jobs. Forty-eight percent (48%) say the stimulus spending does not create jobs, and 21% are not sure.

This is certainly a better approach for growing the economy.  The people are proving to be a lot smarter than their governors in Washington.

Indiana: Defender of “the Rule of Law”

While the majority of Chrysler’s senior creditors sacrificed their fiduciary duties and caved into political pressure in accepting the Obama Administration’s pre-packaged bankruptcy of Chrysler, a small group of state pension funds in Indiana has challenged the Obama plan and is asking the Supreme Court to review said plan. As in the 1930s, the protection of contractual rights, one of the most basic pillars of a free society, along with the rule of law, is now in the hands of the Supreme Court.

As discussed in today’s Washington Post, these pension funds believe their rights were infringed by the Administration’s placing of junior creditors in a preferred situation to senior creditors. It doesn’t take Ms. Manners to remind us that cutting in line, whether in traffic, at the grocery store, or in a bankruptcy, is plain rude. To have the government re-order the line for you is even worse.

To re-build confidence in our markets, trust in our institutions must be re-stored. Not simply in our private institutions, but also in our government. If players believe the game is going to be rigged, fewer will be willing to play. And while the Administration has portrayed Chrysler’s senior creditors as nothing more than greedy speculators, the Indiana request exposes that myth. President Obama should clearly articulate why retired state employees, such as teachers and firefighters, should have their pension funds raided solely for the benefit of the auto unions. Here’s to hoping Indiana goes all the way in this Court.