Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

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.

Should You Vote on Keeping Your Local Car Dealership?

There are lots of reasons Washington should not bail out the automakers.  Whatever the justification for saving financial institutions – the “lifeblood” of the economy, etc., etc. – saving selected industrial enterprises is lemon socialism at its worst.  The idea that the federal government will be able to engineer an economic turnaround is, well, the sort of economic fantasy that unfortunately dominates Capitol Hill these days.

One obvious problem is that legislators now have a great excuse to micromanage the automakers.  And they have already started.  After all, if the taxpayers are providing subsidies, don’t they deserve to have dealerships, lots of dealerships, just down the street?  That’s what our Congresscritters seem to think.

Observes Stephen Chapman of the Chicago Tribune:

The Edsel was one of the biggest flops in the history of car making. Introduced with great fanfare by Ford in 1958, it had terrible sales and was junked after only three years. But if Congress had been running Ford, the Edsel would still be on the market.

That became clear last week, when Democrats as well as Republicans expressed horror at the notion that bankrupt companies with plummeting sales would need fewer retail sales outlets. At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., led the way, asserting, “I honestly don’t believe that companies should be allowed to take taxpayer funds for a bailout and then leave it to local dealers and their customers to fend for themselves.”

Supporters of free markets can be grateful to Rockefeller for showing one more reason government shouldn’t rescue unsuccessful companies. As it happens, taxpayers are less likely to get their money back if the automakers are barred from paring dealerships. Protecting those dealers merely means putting someone else at risk, and that someone has been sleeping in your bed.

The Constitution guarantees West Virginia two senators, and Rockefeller seems to think it also guarantees the state a fixed supply of car sellers. “Chrysler is eliminating 40 percent of its dealerships in my state,” he fumed, “and I have heard that GM will eliminate more than 30 percent.” This development raises the ghastly prospect that “some consumers in West Virginia will have to travel much farther distances to get their cars serviced under warranty.”

Dealers were on hand to join the chorus. “To be arbitrarily closed with no compensation is wasteful and devastating,” said Russell Whatley, owner of a Chrysler outlet in Mineral Wells, Texas.

Lemon socialism mixed with pork barrel politics!  Could it get any worse?  Don’t ask: after all, this is Washington, D.C.

The Corporate Culture at Government Motors

David Brooks comes in for his share of criticism in these parts, but he has a very astute column today about the ways that government ownership will worsen an already problematic corporate culture at a once-great company:

Fifth, G.M.’s executives and unions now have an incentive to see Washington as a prime revenue center. Already, the union has successfully lobbied to move production centers back from overseas. Already, the company has successfully sought to restrict the import of cars that might compete with G.M. brands. In the years ahead, G.M.’s management will have a strong incentive to spend time in Washington, urging the company’s owner, the federal government, to issue laws to help it against Ford and Honda.

Sixth, the new plan will create an ever-thickening set of relationships between G.M.’s new owners — in government, management and unions. These thickening bonds between public and private bureaucrats will fundamentally alter the corporate culture, and not for the better. Members of Congress are also getting more involved in the company they own, and will have their own quaint impact.

The end result is that G.M. will not become more like successful car companies. It will become less like them.