Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Angel Investors

The Wall Street Journal has an important editorial today on how the financial “reform” bill being considered by Congress could help kill the angel investment industry in the United States.

Burying angels under new regulations would be part of a one-two knock-out blow for this group of more than 300,000 higher-income Americans who invest directly into start-up companies. The Obama administration’s tax-increase policies would be the other blow, as I testified to the Senate earlier this year

Angels have played a crucial role in America’s dynamic job-creating economy over the decades. Policymakers would be absolutely crackers to screw up such a successful part of our innovation economy.

Wednesday Links

  • Clear and simple: It is unconstitutional for the federal government to force people to buy a private product.

SEC vs. Goldman Sachs: Legislation by Demonization

The Obama administration thinks it has discovered the perfect formula to cram legislation through in a hurry:  Demonize some prominent firm within an industry you plan to redesign, and then pass a law that has nothing to do with the accusation against the demonized firm.  They did this with health insurance and now they’re trying it with finance.

With health insurance, the demon was Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield of California, which Obama accused of raising premiums by “anywhere from 35 to 39 percent.” Why didn’t some curious reporter interview a single person who actually paid 39% more, or quote from a letter announcing such an increase?  Because it didn’t happen.  Insurance premiums are regulated by the states, and California wouldn’t approve such a boost.  Yet the media’s uncritical outrage over that 39% rumor helped to enact an intrusive, redistributive health bill that has nothing to do with health insurance premiums (which remain regulated by the states).

Today, the new demon de jour is Goldman Sachs, a handy scapegoat to promote hasty financial rejiggering schemes  The SEC’s suspiciously-timed civil suit against Goldman looks as flimsy as the last month’s health insurance story.  It also looks unlikely to win in court.

As Washington Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby explains, “This is a non-scandal. The securities in question, so-called synthetic collateralized debt obligations, cannot exist unless somebody is betting that they will lose value.”  In such a zero-sum contest, big investors who went long knew perfectly well that other investors had to be taking the other side of the bet.  Goldman lost $90 million by betting this CDO would go up; John Paulson went short.

Columnists have moralized about the unfairness of the short investor (Paulson) negotiating the terms of this deal with a long investor, ACA Management, which had the last word. This too, notes Mallaby, “is another non-scandal.  An investor who wants to bet against a bundle of mortgages is entitled to suggest what should go into the bundle. The buyer is equally entitled to make counter-suggestions.  As the SEC’s complaint states clearly, the lead buyer in this deal, a boutique called ACA that specialized in mortgage securities, did precisely that.”

Like the earlier fuming about Anthem California, this new SEC publicity stunt is likewise irrelevant to the pending legislation.  Congress hopes to get standardized derivatives traded on an exchange. But synthetic collateralized debt obligations dealing with a customized bundle of securities could not possibly be traded on an exchange, and would therefore be untouched by reform.

Losses sustained by a few financial speculators on one exotic derivative had nothing to do with starting a global recession in December 2007 or the related financial crisis of September 2008. The core of the latter crisis was mortgage-backed securities per se, yet Goldman was only the 12th largest private MBS issuer in 2007.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were and are the biggest risk; any reform that excludes them is a fraud.

The SEC’s dubious civil suit against Goldman is a wasteful diversion at best. It has nothing to do with the Obama administration’s suicidal impulse to impose more tough regulations and taxes on banks to encourage them to lend more.

[Cross-posted at NRO’s The Corner]

Obama’s Fannie and Freddie Amnesia

Peter Wallison calls attention to President Obama’s amnesia regarding events that precipitated Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s collapse. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Wallison points out that in 2005 then-Senator Obama joined with his Democratic colleagues in stopping legislation that would have helped rein in the government-sponsored housing duo’s risky behavior:

The bill would have established a new regulator for Fannie and Freddie and given it authority to ensure that they maintained adequate capital, properly managed their interest rate risk, had adequate liquidity and reserves, and controlled their asset and investment portfolio growth.

These authorities were necessary to control the GSEs’ risk-taking, but opposition by Fannie and Freddie—then the most politically powerful firms in the country—had consistently prevented reform.

The date of the Senate Banking Committee’s action is important. It was in 2005 that the GSEs—which had been acquiring increasing numbers of subprime and Alt-A loans for many years in order to meet their HUD-imposed affordable housing requirements—accelerated the purchases that led to their 2008 insolvency. If legislation along the lines of the Senate committee’s bill had been enacted in that year, many if not all the losses that Fannie and Freddie have suffered, and will suffer in the future, might have been avoided.

The president’s complicity in the housing collapse hasn’t stopped him from pinning the blame on Republicans, “special interests,” and Wall Street “fat cats.” As he does with other problems, the president blames everyone except himself and his party.

As I recounted in a Cato Policy Analysis, Fannie and Freddie epitomized the tawdry relationship between businesses that receive special federal breaks and policymakers. Democrats, including Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, played a key role in facilitating Fannie and Freddie’s destructive activities. Emanuel, a then recent senior adviser to President Clinton, was appointed by Clinton to Freddie Mac’s board of directors, where he earned $320,000 in compensation and sold company stock worth more than $100,000.

Then there’s the current Office of Management and Budget director, Peter Orszag. In 2002, Fannie Mae commissioned a paper authored by Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, Jonathan Orszag, and Peter Orszag, who was then at the Brookings Institution. The study concluded that “the probability of default by the GSEs is extremely small.” Oops.

Given the company Obama keeps, it’s not surprising that the administration still hasn’t come up for a plan on what to do with Fannie and Freddie.

The administration has intentionally not incorporated Fannie and Freddie into the federal budget in order to hide the cost to taxpayers. And on Christmas Eve the administration quietly announced that the government would cover all of Fannie and Freddie’s losses beyond the original $400 billion limit through 2012. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the final cost to taxpayers for bailing out Fannie and Freddie will approach that figure, although Wallison calls that projection “optimistic.”

See this essay for more on the problems the federal government causes in the housing market.

Lehman’s Failure Taught Us Nothing

Several commentators have reacted to Senator McConnell’s floor statement regarding the Dodd bill as a defense of “doing nothing”.  And accordingly argue that such a position would be, in the words of Simon Johnson, both dangerous and irresponsible.  This familiar canard is based upon the oft repeated assertion that the failure of Lehman proved that we cannot simply let large financial companies enter bankruptcy.

The simple, but important, fact is that we have no idea what would have happened had we let AIG and Bear go into bankruptcy proceedings.  Nor do we know what would have happened if Lehman had been saved.  Macroeconomics does not have the luxury of running natural experiments to determine the impact of a corporate failure.   Scholars have an obligation to accurately reflect the uncertainties in the debate.  Those that assert Lehman proved anything, are being at best disingenuous, and at worst, dishonest.

Let us, however, put forth a few things we do know:

  1. We know none of Lehman’s counterparties failed as a result of Lehman’s failures.  Just as we know none of AIG”s counterparties would have failed if they did not get 100 cents on the dollar from their CDS positions.  So where exactly is the proof of contagion?
  2. We know we had a nasty housing bubble.  We were going to lose millions of jobs in construction and real estate regardless of what we did.  We knew financial institutions heavily invested in housing would suffer.  How exactly would saving Lehman have prevented any of that?

The debate over ending bailouts and too-big-to-fail will not progress, we will not learn a thing, if we let simple, empty assertion pass as fact.  Much of the public remains angry at Washington because those responsible, such as Bernanke and Geithner, have never laid out a believable or plausible narrative for the bailouts.  It always comes back to “panic.”  If we are ever to hope to return to being a country governed by the rule of law, rather than the whims of men, then we need a lot more of an explanation than “panic.”

Litan Warns Dodd Bill Would Harm Startups

I haven’t been following the debate over Sen. Dodd’s financial overhaul closely enough to have an opinion on the overall package, but Mike Masnick flags one aspect of the legislation that seems really troubling. Bob Litan explains:

Under existing law, startup companies can raise money easily and quickly from “accredited investors” – individuals with substantial wealth or income. There is no need for the companies or the investors to gain approval from any state or regulatory official.

All of this would change if Section 926 of the Dodd bill is included in any final reform legislation. That section would require, for the first time, companies seeking angel investment to make a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which would have 120 days to review it. This would both raise the cost of seeking angels and delay the ability of companies to benefit from their funding.

The negative impact of the SEC filing requirement would be aggravated by the proposed doubling of the net worth or income thresholds required for investors to be “accredited.”

It’s hard to overstate how important a favorable regulatory climate is to the success of startups. Some of the most important startups have been founded by 20-somethings without the resources to hire lawyers or navigate regulatory bureaucracies. And startups frequently find themselves within weeks of insolvency before they have a big breakthrough. Having a crucial round of funding delayed by four months can be the difference between success and failure. If this description of the bill is accurate (and I have no reason to doubt that it is), this provision would be very bad for the future of high-tech innovation in the United States.

Dynamic Marketplace, Nimble Legislature

Years ago, when I worked on Capitol Hill, a colleague invited me to attend a meeting with some university professors who had a new idea for regulation of the telecommunications sector.

“Bits,” they said. “All regulation should center on bits.”

With convergence on IP-based communications, the regulatory silos dominating telecommunications would soon be more than anachronistic. Indeed, they would be a burden on the telecom sector. Bits were the fundamental unit of measure for the coming telecommunications era, and regulation should be formed around that reality.

My colleague and I looked at each other, amused.

Figuring out the substance is 5% of the problem. The other 95% is pulling together a sufficient coalition and muting opposition to your reform. More than a decade after this meeting and with “convergence” a rather old and obvious idea, the telecom regulatory regime is unchanged.

Like these professors did with telecom, many people can imagine legislative solutions to problems in the privacy era. I often don’t agree that their solutions are good, but nonetheless the capacity to imagine a suitable regulation is only 5% of the problem. Whether a good idea can be reduced to legislative language, passed in the same form, and implemented in its original spirit—all these are reasons to be wary of the legislative enterprise. What happens if something goes wrong?

Take the example of the privacy notices that the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act requires financial institution to send to consumers each year. At the time it passed, I argued that it was an anti-marketing law much more than a privacy law. I haven’t seen anyone argue that financial privacy has flourished since it passed. I have also expressed doubts about notice and its utility for consumers many times, including in this long post, part of an abandoned debate with Cato colleague Julian Sanchez.

But putting aside these substantive issues, I don’t think anybody believed when Gramm-Leach-Bliley passed that consumers should get annual privacy notices from financial services providers that don’t share information in the ways the law was meant to affect.

But it did require those notices, and after the law passed in late 1999, those privacy notices started to go out:

“It’s 2000, and we don’t share information about you.”

“It’s 2001, and we’re still not sharing information about you.”

“It’s 2002—still not sharing information.”

“It’s 2003—we continue to not share information about you.”

“Hey, friend, here in 2004, we’re not sharing information about you!”

And so on, and so on, and so on—meaningless notices that could only confuse consumers.

So I was amused to see yesterday—more than ten years later—that the House of Representatives passed H.R. 3506, the “Eliminate Privacy Notice Confusion Act.” If would allow financial services providers that don’t share personal information in ways relevant to the GLB Act to stop sending those meaningless notices every year.

It took Congress ten years to correct a simple, obvious mistake—something nobody intended to put into the law. How many years would it take to correct privacy law on which opinion was divided?

Online privacy is more difficult and changing than financial privacy. The weakness of artificial “privacy notice” to affect consumer awareness and behavior is starting to dawn on people. But even if we did know the right answers, I would be wary of writing them into law.

A dynamic market needs a nimble legislature overseeing it. There’s just no such thing. Prefer the market.