Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Name That Company: Fiasco

NPR asks listeners what the new company created by President Obama out of the remains of the Chrysler corporation, to be controlled by the United Auto Workers, funded by the American taxpayers, and managed by Fiat, should be called.

One listener suggested AutomObama, with the slogan ”You’ll Be Paying on It for Years.” Another offered “FIAT: Fix It Again, Barack.”

Of course, the name Fiat works pretty well for this new company. After all, “fiat” means, according to Webster’s, ” a command or act of will that creates something without or as if without further effort” or ”an authoritative or arbitrary order.” (And note that when you look up “fiat” in Webster’s, you get an ad for the new company.)

But it’s hard to beat the name suggested by most listeners: Fiasco.

Bank ‘Stress Tests’ Need Transparency

As the bank stress tests are released, it is vital that the public receive specific and detailed information on each financial institution.  The Administration’s and the Federal Reserve’s continued policy of attempting to disguise the differing health of each bank has been a failure.  What is best for the taxpayer and the investing public is sufficient information to separate the good banks from the bad.

For those institutions which lack sufficient capital to remain solvent, they should seek private capital or else be closed and resolved.  Too many taxpayer dollars have already been wasted keeping alive failed institutions.  The Administration’s policy of keeping failed institutions on taxpayer-financed life-support only serves to retard the market’s ability to move assets away from those who do not, or cannot, make productive use of them toward those who can.  It is time to remember that the unparalleled wealth-creating engine of the market depends as much on allowing failure as it does in encouraging success.

Banks passing the stress tests should be allowed and encouraged to re-pay their TARP funds as soon as possible, and with no additional strings attached.  More importantly, the Administration should use any returned TARP funds to pay-down the increasing government debt, rather than be diverted to bailing-out other failed companies.

With ‘Cramdown’ Rejection, Is Senate Ready to Respect Marketplace Contracts Again?

After rejecting the proposed ‘cramdown’ changes to the bankruptcy code, the Senate may be slowly waking up to the need to respect contracts.  One cannot rebuild trust and confidence in our markets, while at the same type trying to destroy the trust that underlies contractual relations.  Were the cramdown legislation approved, the message to investors, or any market participants, would be that the enforceability and terms of your private agreements will be subject to the direction of the political winds.

Proponents of cramdown claimed that the bankruptcy code favored one’s vacation home or yacht over one’s primary residence, as the mortgages on these assets could be reduced to reflect their current value.  Such a claim is at best misleading, if not outright false.  One’s primary residence is already the most favored asset in bankruptcy – due to the very simple fact that one generally gets to keep their home, while one usually has to give up their boat or vacation home in order to satisfy one’s debts.  There simply is no ‘yacht-stead’ exemption.  In fact, under Chapter 13, primary residences whose equity values are greater than the homestead exemption are crammed-down, and the home is transferred to the lender.

Our economy will only turn around once families, investors, entrepreneurs and other market participants believe the rules of the game will be fair and certain, and not constantly subject to political manipulation.  Voluntary consensual agreements are one of the basic pillars of our society, and should be respected as such.  They should not be written solely as a means of taking from one groups of citizens and giving to another.

So Much for the Obama Administration’s Fiscal Free Lunch

So far the Obama administration has been enjoying the ultimate fiscal free lunch.  Massive borrowing, massive spending, lower taxes, and low interest rates.

Alas, all good things must come to an end.

Reports the New York Times:

The nation’s debt clock is ticking faster than ever — and Wall Street is getting worried.

As the Obama administration racks up an unprecedented spending bill for bank bailouts, Detroit rescues, health care overhauls and stimulus plans, the bond market is starting to push up the cost of trillions of dollars in borrowing for the government.

Last week, the yield on 10-year Treasury notes rose to its highest level since November, briefly touching 3.17 percent, a sign that investors are demanding larger returns on the masses of United States debt being issued to finance an economic recovery.

While that is still low by historical standards — it averaged about 5.7 percent in the late 1990s, as deficits turned to surpluses under President Bill Clinton — investors are starting to wonder whether the United States is headed for a new era of rising market interest rates as the government borrows, borrows and borrows some more.

Already, in the first six months of this fiscal year, the federal deficit is running at $956.8 billion, or nearly one seventh of gross domestic product — levels not seen since World War II, according to Wrightson ICAP, a research firm.

Debt held by the public is projected by the Congressional Budget Office to rise from 41 percent of gross domestic product in 2008 to 51 percent in 2009 and to a peak of around 54 percent in 2011 before declining again in the following years. For all of 2009, the administration probably needs to borrow about $2 trillion.

The rising tab has prompted warnings from the Treasury that the Congressionally mandated debt ceiling of $12.1 trillion will most likely be breached in the second half of this year.

Last week, the Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee, a group of industry officials that advises the Treasury on its financing needs, warned about the consequences of higher deficits at a time when tax revenues were “collapsing” by 14 percent in the first half of the fiscal year.

“Given the outlook for the economy, the cost of restoring a smoothly functioning financial system and the pending entitlement obligations to retiring baby boomers,” a report from the committee said, “the fiscal outlook is one of rapidly increasing debt in the years ahead.”

While the real long-term interest rate will not rise immediately, the committee concluded, “such a fiscal path could force real rates notably higher at some point in the future.”

Alas, this is just the beginning.  Three quarters of the spending in the misnamed stimulus bill (it would more accurately be called the “Pork and Social Spending We’ve Been Waiting Years to Foist on the Unsuspecting Public Bill”) occurs next year and beyond, when most economists expect the economy to be growing again.  Moreover, much of the so-called stimulus outlays do nothing to actually stimulate the economy, being used for income transfers and the usual social programs.

However, we will be paying for these outlays for years.  Even as, the Congressional Budget Office warns, the GDP ultimately shrinks as federal expenditures and borrowing “crowd out” private investment.  Indeed, the CBO figures that incomes will suffer a permanent decline–even as taxes are climbing dramatically to pay off all of the debt accumulated by Uncle Sam.

And you don’t want to think about the total bill as Washington bails out (almost $13 trillion worth so far) everyone within reach, “stimulates” (the bill passed earlier this year ran $787 billion) everything within reach, and spends money (Congress approved a budget of $3.5 trillion for next year) within reach.  Indeed, according to CBO, the president’s budget envisions increasing the additional collective federal deficit between 2010 and 2019 from $4.4 trillion to $9.3 trillion.)  Then there will be more federal spending for wastral government entities, such as the Federal Housing Administration; failing banks, which are being closed at a record rate by the FDIC; pension pay-offs for bankrupt companies, administered by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation; and covering the big tab being up run up by Social Security and Medicare, which currently sport unfunded liabilities of around $100 trillion.

Oh, to be an American taxpayer – and especially a young American taxpayer – who will be paying Uncle Sam’s endless bills for the rest of his or her life!

Like FDR — In a Really Bad Way

President Barack Obama based his candidacy in part on the promise to set a new tone in Washington.  But we saw a much older tone emerge with his demonization of hedge funds over the Chrysler bankruptcy.  Reports the Washington Post:

President Obama’s harsh attack on hedge funds he blamed for forcing Chrysler into bankruptcy yesterday sparked cries of protest from the secretive financial firms that hold about $1 billion of the automaker’s debt.

Hedge funds and investment managers were irate at Obama’s description of them as “speculators” who were “refusing to sacrifice like everyone else” and who wanted “to hold out for the prospect of an unjustified taxpayer-funded bailout.”

“Some of the characterizations that were used today to refer to us as speculators or to say we’re looking for a bailout is really unfair,” said one executive who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “What we’re looking for is a reasonable payout on the value of the debt … more in line with what unions and Fiat were getting.”

George Schultze, the managing member of the hedge fund Schultze Asset Management, a Chrysler bondholder, said, “We are simply seeking to enforce our bargained-for rights under well-settled law.”

“Hopefully, the bankruptcy process will help refocus on this issue rather than on pointing fingers at lenders,” he said.

I won’t claim any special expertise to parse who is responsible for what in the crash of the U.S.  (meaning Big Three) auto industry.  However, attacking people for exercising their legal rights and trashing those who make their business investing in companies hardly seems like the right way to get the U.S. economy moving again.

During the Depression, FDR’s relentless attacks on business and the rich almost certainly added to a climate of uncertainty that discouraged investment during tough times.  Why put your money at real risk when the president and his cohorts seem determined to treat you like the enemy?  While President Obama need not treat gently those who contributed to the current crisis by acting illegally or unscrupulously, he should not act as if those who simply aren’t willing to turn their economic futures over to the tender mercies of the White House are criminals.

We’ve just lived through eight years of bitter partisan warfare.  The president shouldn’t replace that with a jihad against businesses that resist increased government direction of the economy.

In Ensuring Credit Card Holders’ ‘Rights,’ Congress May Actually Take Away Their Credit

With a vote expected today on the so-called Credit Card Holders’ Bill of Rights, the U.S. House is poised to follow up on President Obama’s finger-wagging rhetoric about fees and other perceived sins of the credit industry.

But Congress should keep in mind that credit cards have been a significant source of consumer liquidity during this downturn. Now is the worst time to push measures that would curtail the availability of consumer credit, and that is exactly what the Credit Card Holders’ Bill of Rights will do.

While few of us want to have to cover our basic living expenses on our credit card, that option is certainly better than going without those basic needs. The wide availability of credit cards has helped to significantly maintain some level of consumer purchasing during this downturn.

It was the massive under-pricing of risk, often at the urging of Washington, that brought on our current financial market crisis. To now pressure credit card companies not to raise their fees or more accurately price credit risk, will only reduce the availability of credit while undermining the financial viability of the companies, ultimately prolonging the recession and potentially increasing the cost of bank bailouts to the taxpayer.

The Federal Reserve recently issued regulations targeting practices in the credit card industry. While this regulation was itself overkill, it should be given an opportunity to work, and be modified if it results in significant contraction of credit. It is far easier to go back and change harmful regulations than legislation.

Chrysler: Everybody Relax, This Is Exactly What Should Have Happened

the-new-chryslerA small group of Chrysler debt holders rejected the Obama administration’s restructuring plan last night, leaving Chapter 11 bankruptcy as the most salient option for the company.

The Obama administration accused the investors who walked away of “failure to act…in the national interest.” But it’s not difficult to understand why these secured creditors rejected the government’s offer of essentially 29 cents on their investment dollar. If that is how the Obama administration treats capital markets, how exactly do they expect to spur private investment in American companies, as the White House claims it wants to do?

Bankruptcy reorganization will probably yield a better deal for investors than the government’s plan. It also will imbue the process with more financial sanity than anything the Obama administration cooked up. For instance: the historically overindulged United Auto Workers might be forced to make more “sacrifices” than being handed a 55 percent stake in the company—essentially what the core of the administration’s plan would have accomplished—or reducing their CBA-mandated breaks from 16 minutes to 13 minutes.

Bankruptcy has been the best option all along. That was clear the moment it was determined that new private capital or adequate sales revenues would not be available to fund operations. But once the Bush administration circumvented Congress to throw Chrysler (and GM) a lifeline, and the Obama administration followed suit with implicit backing, uncertainty prevailed and the problem persisted. The bankruptcy process will produce a less politically driven solution.