Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Why Wall Street Loves Obama

wall streetWas it just me, or did there seem to be a whole lot of applause during Obama’s Wall Street speech?  Remember this was a room full of Wall Street executives.  The President even started by thanking the Wall Street execs for their “warm welcome.”

While of course, there was the obligatory slap on the wrist, that “we will not go back to the days of reckless behavior and unchecked excess,” but there was no mention that the bailouts were a thing of the past.  Indeed, there is nothing in Obama’s financial plan that would prevent future bailouts, which is why I believe there was such applause.  The message to the Goldman’s of the world, was, you better behave, but even if you don’t, you, and your debtholders will be bailed out.

The president also repeatedly called for “clear rules” and “transparency” - but where exactly in his plan is the clear line dividing who will or will not be bailed out?  That’s the part Wall Street loves the most; they can all say we’ve “learned the lesson of Lehman:  Wall Street firms cannot be allowed to fail.”  At least that’s the lesson that Obama, Geithner and Bernanke have taken away.  The truth is we’ve been down this road before with Fannie and Freddie.  Politicians always called for them to do their part, and that their misdeeds would not be tolerated.  Remember all the tough talk after the 2003 and 2004 accounting scandals at Freddie and Fannie?  But still they got bailed out, and what new regulations were imposed were weak and ineffective.

As if the applause wasn’t enough, as Charles Gaspario points out, financial stocks rallied after the president’s speech.  Clearly the markets don’t see his plan as bad for the financial industry.

It would seem the best investment Goldman has made in recent years was in its employees deciding to become the largest single corporate contributor to the Obama Presidential campaign.  That’s an investment that continues to yield massive dividends.

The Legacy of TARP: Crony Capitalism

When Treasury Secretary Hank Paul proposed the bailout of Wall Street banks last September, I objected in part because the TARP meant that government connections, not economic merit, would come to determine how capital gets allocated in the economy. That prediction now looks dead on:

As financial firms navigate a life more closely connected to government aid and oversight than ever before, they increasingly turn to Washington, closing a chasm that was previously far greater than the 228 miles separating the nation’s political and financial capitals.

In the year since the investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed, paralyzing global markets and triggering one of the biggest government forays into the economy in U.S. history, Wall Street has looked south to forge new business strategies, hew to new federal policies and find new talent.

“In the old days, Washington was refereeing from the sideline,” said Mohamed A. el-Erian, chief executive officer of Pimco. “In the new world we’re going toward, not only is Washington refereeing from the field, but it is also in some respects a player as well… . And that changes the dynamics significantly.”

Read the rest of the article; it is truly frightening. We have taken a huge leap toward crony capitalism, to our peril.

Reform Needed, but Obama Plan Would Result in More Financial Crises, not Less

Today President Obama took his financial reform plan to the airwaves.  While there is no doubt our financial system is in need of financial reform, the President’s plan would make bailouts a permanent feature of the regulatory landscape.  Rather than ending “too big to fail” – the President wants us to believe that with additional discretion and power, the same Federal Reserve that missed the boat last time will save us next time.

The truth is that the President’s plan will result in a small number of companies being viewed by debtholders as “too big to fail”.  These companies would see their funding costs decline, allowing them to gain market-share at the expense of their rivals, making these firms even larger.  Greater concentration in our financial services industry is the last thing we need, yet the Obama plan all but guarantees it.

Obama also chooses myth’s over facts.  The President claims that de-regulation and competition among regulators caused the crisis.  The facts could not be more different.  Those institutions at the center of the crisis – Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear Stearns, Lehman –could not choose their regulator.

The President’s plan chooses convenient targets and protects entrenched interests, rather than address the true underlying causes of the crisis.  At no time have we heard the President discuss the expansionary monetary policies that helped fuel the bubble.  Nor has the President talked about the global imbalances – the global savings glut that poured surplus savings from the rest of the world into the US.  But then the President appears to hope that loose monetary policy and continued American consumption funded by China will get him out of his own political problems with the economy.  It is especially striking that the President makes little mention of the housing bubble, as if it was only the bust that was the problem.

The President continues to say he inherited this crisis.  While true, he did not inherit the same individuals – Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke – who were at the center of creating the crisis.  All Obama needs to do is find a position for Hank Paulson and he will have completely re-assembled the Bush financial team.

Without real reform – fixing Fannie and Freddie, scaling back the massive subsidies for leverage in our tax code, loose monetary policy – it will only be a matter of time before the next crisis hits.  If we implement the President’s plan, we will, however, guarantee that the next crisis will be even larger and severe than the current one.

No, the Fed Did Not Stabilize the Economy

Commenting on a recent article of mine in The Wall Street Journal, Peter Gartside claims that:

Prior to 1913, the U.S. annual gross domestic product changes oscillated between extremes of approximately plus or minus 15%.   After the establishment of the Federal Reserve Board, the limits of GDP oscillations narrowed to approximately plus or minus 6%.

You may well wonder where he got that idea, since there are no official estimates of gross domestic product (GDP) for years before 1929.  In the early 1960s, however, John Kendrick and Simon Kuznets bravely attempted to construct such estimates for gross national product (GNP).  That would be close enough to modern GDP data were it not for the primitive statistics and technology they had to work with.

The table (after the jump) shows these heroic old estimates for real GNP from 1889 to 1914.  In that period, there was only one year (1908) in which the drop in GNP exceeded 6% and none that remotely approaches the  “minus 15%” figure of Mr. Garstide’s imagination.

Real GNP
billions of 1958$

1889    49.1
1890    52.7
1891    55.1
1892    60.4
1893    57.5
1894    55.9
1895    62.6
1896    61.3
1897    67.1
1898    68.6
1899    74.8
1900    76.9
1901    85.7
1902    86.5
1903    90.8
1904    89.7
1905    96.3
1906    107.5
1907    109.2
1908    100.2
1909    116.8
1910    120.1
1911    123.2
1912    130.2
1913    131.4
1914    125.6

Historical Statistics of the U.S., Series F4

CEA chair Christina Romer’s research shows that these early estimates “exaggerate the size of cycles because they are based on the assumption that GNP moves approximately one for one with commodity output valued in producer prices.” If we tried to estimate recent GDP figures on the basis of commodity output and prices, then postwar cycles would look even wilder than they already do.  Consider, for example, using the recent gyrations in producer prices of oil and metals as a proxy for GNP.

Even if we relied on the ancient and flawed pre-Romer GNP estimates above, however, there were still no downturns before 1913 that were nearly as extreme as 1929-33 or even 1920-21.  And there was no recession between the 1870s and 1913 that lasted as long as the slump of 2008-2009.

Whether we’re talking about fiscal or monetary fine-tuning, all the technocrats efforts at taming the business cycle in the past 40 years appear no more successful than the pre-Fed policies of doing without a central bank and doing without deferred tax increases (debt-financed “fiscal stimulus” plans).

So Much for Making Money on the Bailout

Reports the Washington Post:

The federal government is unlikely to recoup all of the billions of dollars that it has invested in General Motors and Chrysler, according to a new congressional oversight report assessing the automakers’ rescue.

The report said that a $5.4 billion portion of the $10.5 billion owed by Chrysler is “highly unlikely” to be repaid, while full recovery of the $50 billion sunk into GM would require the company’s stock to reach unprecedented heights.

“Although taxpayers may recover some portion of their investment in Chrysler and GM, it is unlikely they will recover the entire amount,” according to the report, which is scheduled to be released Wednesday.

Well, it’s only money.  And with the taxpayers facing more than $100 trillion worth of unfunded liabilities, what’s a few more wasted dollars?!

The Coming FHA Bail-Out

The taxpayers continue to get hit for Uncle Sam’s profligate ways in guaranteeing and insuring loans to virtually anyone and everyone who wanted to buy a house.  The financial fall-out continues, and this time it isn’t Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  It is the Federal Housing Administration.

Reports the Wall Street Journal:

The Federal Housing Administration, hit by increasing mortgage-related losses, is in danger of seeing its reserves fall below the level demanded by Congress, according to government officials, in a development that could raise concerns about whether the agency needs a taxpayer bailout.

The rising losses at the FHA, part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, come as the agency has rapidly increased its role in guaranteeing loans in an attempt to stabilize the housing market.

It isn’t clear how the rising losses may affect home buyers. Options for the agency could include politically unpalatable choices, such as asking for taxpayer funds to boost reserves or increasing the premiums borrowers pay for the insurance offered by the agency. Agency officials say if there is a shortfall, they don’t have to do anything except report it to lawmakers. But some mortgage and housing analysts see trouble ahead. “They’re probably going to need a bailout at some point because they’re making loans in a riskier environment,” says Edward Pinto, a mortgage-industry consultant and former chief credit officer at Fannie Mae. “…I’ve never seen an entity successfully outrun a situation like this.”

Oh well, it’s only money.  When you have a national debt of nearly $12 trillion, face another $10 trillion in red ink over the next decade, and have accumulated $107 trillion in unfunded liabilities for Medicare and Social Security alone, what’s a few billion dollars more?

What Is ‘Unreasonable’ Compensation? And Who Gets to Decide?

As could be expected, the effects of the financial crisis — and people’s reaction thereto — are starting to make their way to the least political branch of government, the judiciary.  The Supreme Court this term will be hearing several cases that could have serious repercussions on our economic recovery, one of which led us to file an amicus brief.  Here’s the situation:

The Investment Company Act of 1940 places on investment advisers a fiduciary duty with respect to the compensation they receive for the services they provide their clients. In the case of Jones v. Harris Associates, shareholders in various mutual funds contend that their adviser fees were excessive and violated the ICA. The Seventh Circuit, the federal appellate court based in Chicago, affirmed the judgment of the district court that the fees were not excessive but also expressly disapproved of the  methodology for evaluating such claims used by the Second Circuit (based in New York). Judge Frank Easterbrook’s opinion explains that the ICA creates a fiduciary duty but does not act as a rate regulator, and that judicial price-setting does not accompany fiduciary duties. Judge Richard Posner, writing for five judges, dissented from the denial of an en banc rehearing. The Supreme Court agreed to review the case to settle the circuit split.

Our brief supports the investment adviser and makes three arguments:

  1. All persons have a fundamental human right to whatever compensation their contracting partners freely and honestly choose to pay them.
  2. Courts have no power to second-guess the reasonableness of any salary or compensation agreement honestly and freely signed by both contracting parties.
  3. The ICA’s fiduciary duty requires only fair dealing, not any particular outcome.

Thanks to Cato adjunct scholar Tim Sandefur for spearheading this effort, and to Cato legal associate Matthew Aichele for helping with much of the attendant busywork.