Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Intervention Is Not the Answer

The current turmoil in financial markets is the result of bad government policy, particularly easy-money policy by the Federal Reserve and unsustainable subsidies to housing by Fannie and Freddie.

The bailout did not address these problems. Instead, it sought to compound the problem by increasing government intervention.

Ideally, politicians now will shift gears and seek to reduce government barriers to economic revitalization. Unfortunately, the political insiders from both parties almost surely will close ranks and seek cosmetic changes in hopes of ramming the bailout through Congress.

It’s Not a Pretty Picture

The failure of the bailout plan essentially shows the huge lack of confidence among the public that it would achieve its objectives. It also registers doubt about the government’s ability to implement it successfully.

The impasse shows how blunt fiscal policy is and how inept politicians are in managing the economy. The current set of problems did not arise overnight — they festered in the form of government favoritism toward housing finance companies which overextended their operations and ultimately toppled over. Now, those policies have come full circle to rest at Congress’s doorstep. Problem is, they will soon visit our doorsteps too in the form of a weaker economy.

Now that the bailout proposal has failed, Congress may seek a new approach. More likely, the existing plan will be tweaked to enable passage in a re-vote. But delay and political drama will further sap public confidence in Congress and weaken consumer confidence in the economy.

That may mean a deeper recession and trigger calls for still larger bailouts to salvage the financial sector in the future. But a larger bailout package will also be more dangerous. Larger short-term increases in federal borrowing may destabilize international capital inflows and reduce confidence in the dollar.

Overall, it’s not a pretty picture — but score one for supporters of the free market who insist on allowing market reorganization of the financial sector to continue unimpeded…albeit at high risk to the economy over the next few months.

Repeal the Income Tax?

The New York Times takes note of the brewing tax revolt in Massachusetts, where a grassroots group has put an initiative on the ballot to repeal the state income tax. The Times headline (on paper) reads, “On Massachusetts Ballot, a Tax Repeal That Worries Leaders.” Why does a newspaper that purports to be a check on government so often present questions from the government’s point of view? Did they once publish headlines like “On Washington Mall, a Peace March That Worries Leaders” or “In Massachusetts, a Civil Rights Crusade That Worries Leaders”? I doubt it.

And I should in fact congratulate reporter Pam Belluck for writing

It would save the average taxpayer about $3,600 a year. Annual revenue from the tax is about $12.5 billion, roughly 45 percent of the state’s budget of about $28 billion.

Too often, as we’ve noted before here on Cato@Liberty, the mainstream media use the formulation “the proposed cut would cost the government millions of dollars.” At least this time Belluck started with the taxpayer.

In 2002 a ballot measure to repeal the income tax got very little attention and still won 45 percent of the vote. This year, with a perception of hard economic times, it might do better. But this time the Establishment is on the alert. The advocates of repeal have raised some $270,000, and after their signature-gathering have only $25,000 left to spend. The special interest groups that thrive on taxpayer money have raised $1.3 million to oppose the initiative.

Let’s hear it for Carla Howell and the Committee for Small Government, who are at least forcing the government–and its beneficiaries–to explain why they need more than the $16 billion of citizens’ money that they would still have after repeal of the income tax. And let’s hear it for pizza shop owner Lakis Theoharis, who tells the Times, “I’m for the repeal of the tax. To me, the smaller the government, the better for the citizens.”

Let Palin Be Palin

Some commentators are suggesting that the McCain campaign has panicked about Sarah Palin’s appeal, trying to cram her head with policy-wonkery and then hiding her in a closet when that didn’t work. Let Palin be Palin, they say – let her show her authentic self, the gun-totin’, family-raisin’, reformist governor that Alaskans love.

Good idea. Let’s start with the bailout. Surely a rugged individualist reformer from way outside the Beltway is champing at the bit to denounce this $700 billion bailout for Wall Street insiders cooked up by Washington insiders behind closed doors, without public hearings, with the unanimous support of the mainstream media. Let ‘er rip, Governor Palin. Tell the Wall Street bankers that when a small business makes bad decisions in Wasilla, it goes out of business, and the same rules should apply to large businesses in Manhattan. That’s the Sarah Palin conservatives say America would love.

I Stand Corrected

In a blog last week, I suggested that after years of carrying water for the Bush administration’s big-government agenda, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Oh) had “suddenly found a spine” and learned to say no.    Apparently not.  Accepting little more than a fig-leaf of change, Boehner now has endorsed the president’s $700 billion bail-out of Wall Street.

Our Intellectual President

Last week, a group of 192 economists signed a letter expressing concern over the Treasury Department’s proposed bailout of the financial industry.  They write:

The plan is a subsidy to investors at taxpayers’ expense. Investors who took risks to earn profits must also bear the losses.  Not every business failure carries systemic risk. The government can ensure a well-functioning financial industry, able to make new loans to creditworthy borrowers, without bailing out particular investors and institutions whose choices proved unwise…

If  taxpayers are to buy illiquid and opaque assets from troubled sellers, the terms, occasions, and methods of such purchases must be crystal clear ahead of time and carefully monitored afterwards…

If the plan is enacted, its effects will be with us for a generation. For all their recent troubles, America’s dynamic and innovative private capital markets have brought the nation unparalleled prosperity.  Fundamentally weakening those markets in order to calm short-run disruptions is desperately short-sighted.  

For these reasons we ask Congress not to rush, to hold appropriate hearings, and to carefully consider the right course of action, and to wisely determine the future of the financial industry and the U.S. economy for years to come. 

At a meeting with congressional leadership on Thursday, President Bush shared his thoughts on those 192 economists’ concerns:

I don’t care what somebody on some college campus says.

Obviously.

A $700-Billion-Dollar “TARP” Won’t Cover Over Economic Realities

I’ve posted a copy of the proposed bailout legislation online in html format, which is easier to read, copy, and paste. Considering its size and significance, I urge you to review it and share it with others.

We have several experts on the bailout at Cato, and our media producer Caleb Brown has ably drawn them out. Give a listen to his podcasts with Bill Niskanen, Jagadeesh Gokhale, Jim Dorn, Arnold Kling, Gerald P. O’Driscoll, and John Samples. [all mp3 format]

There are a couple of elements of the legislation where I might add some insight, so here goes.

Congressional Oversight? Nope. $700 Billion Spent

The bill made available Sunday devotes a good deal of verbiage to oversight of the proposed $700 billion bailout. But it doesn’t do anything to prevent that money being spent.

The major impediment to blowing through all the money is in Section 115, entitled “Graduated Authorization to Purchase.” It would immediately grant the Treasury Secretary authority to spend $250 billion. At any time, the President could send a certification to Congress and the spending authority would rise $100 billion more. After that certification, the President would have only to submit a plan to spend yet more and the Secretary’s authority would rise to the full $700 billion.

Only if Congress introduced and passed legislation to stop further spending would it be capped at $350 billion. Congress would almost certainly not pass such legislation, and even if it did the President could veto it, requiring an impossible-to-reach supermajority in both houses to stop the spending.

Passage of the “Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008” would cause $700 billion to be spent - gone - just like earlier proposals. There is no effective limit on spending in this bill.

Yes, there are a number of oversight mechanisms, and no grant of unreviewable discretion as appeared in a ham-handed earlier proposal. These improvements are all about how the barn door will be closed once the $700 billion is gone.

Covering Over Economic Reality With a “TARP”?

The central feature of the bill is the creation of “TARP,” the “Troubled Asset Relief Program,” in Section 101. The TARP would exist to “purchase, and to make and fund commitments to purchase, troubled assets from any financial institution, on such terms and conditions as are determined by the Secretary … .”

We know that mostly these are going to be mortgage-backed securities of the type issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Fran and Fred issued these - and financial institutions bought them - with abandon because of the implicit (and now realized) government backing Fannie and Freddie enjoyed.

Currently, these securities have no value - “worthless paper,” everyone says. This is not because they are valueless, but because there is enough uncertainty about their value that nobody knows how to price them, so nobody is currently buying.

The idea behind the bailout plan, it seems, is to remake a market for this paper by having the federal government buy it. But it won’t work. And here’s why.

(N.B., I’m a lawyer and strictly an amateur with economics. There are weaknesses and disanalogies in what you’re about to read, but this is the best non-economic “Man on the Clapham Omnibus” explanation I’ve been able to assemble so far.)

Imagine there was a burgeoning trade in beach sand. Because of all the profits others had made on buying and selling beach sand, people came in to the beach sand market and bid up the price, hoping to get their cut of the money to be made.

Then one day, someone pointed out to all the beach sand traders that there’s beach sand all over the place at the beach. There’s so much beach sand that it can’t possibly be worth what people are paying.

Immediately, the market for beach sand would stop functioning, as everyone who held beach sand would not be able to find someone who would buy it at a price they could accept.

What’s the solution to this problem? A downward repricing of beach sand.

There is no alternative but for the market to reform around lower-priced beach sand.

Now, what if the government came in and bought $700 billion dollars worth of beach sand? Current holders of beach sand would get a tremendous windfall, and the government would get a lot of beach sand, but the market for beach sand would not be restored. It would only return when beach sand was again priced at a value that people believed was right. Taxpayers would be out $700 billion and the market for beach sand would be no stronger than before.

Now, there are disanalogies between what I’ve said and the proposed financial services bailout. Unlike beach sand, which is essentially infinite and thus very cheap, mortgage-backed securities actually do have some value. The market just has to discover what it is.

There are good buys right now, and some of the financial services firms that over-committed to mortgage-backed securities and other precarious financial instruments are good buys for smarter players too. These securities and the companies that held them need to be repriced, and there’s nothing the government can do to change that - or control their prices.

Another weakness in my story is that it omits the other roles that beach sand-traders might have. The financial services firms that got hung up on mortgage-backed securities do lots of other lending that lubricates our economy, and they might have a rough time doing it now. Say beach-sand traders are also integral to the glass industry - we’re looking at glass shortages because of the collapse in the sand market. But we had better face that reality rather than trying to avoid it with bigger, more audacious manipulations of economic value than we saw in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Government attempts to support the prices of mortgage-backed securities, of the housing stock, or of our country’s financial services firms will almost certainly end in disaster.

There is no putting a “TARP” over these economic realities, and there is nothing better we can do than to get on with letting the losers lose. No bailout.