Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Hold a Hearing

With so much riding on the pending bailout, I would ask Congress to hold a hearing this weekend, with two people testifying: Ben Bernanke and Roger Cole. Cole is head of the Federal Reserve’s Division of Bank Supervision and Regulation, fondly known as “soup and reg.”

Here is how mortgage securities markets could affect good borrowers:

  1. The securities lose market value.
  2. The banks mark the value of their securities to market. This eats into their capital.
  3. The banks have to cut back lending to good borrowers in order to comply with capital requirements.

To help good borrowers, you have to intercept one of these three steps. The Paulson plan and all its variants are an attempt to intercept step 1. Getting rid of mark-to-market accounting is an attempt to intercept step 2. Easing up on capital requirements is an attempt to intercept step 3.

The Paulson plan is awful. For one thing, I don’t see how the Paulson plan can really kick in for several months, because it will take that long to figure out implementation. With capital forbearance, you could have new rules up and running within a week.

Getting rid of mark-to-market is not what I would want if I were a bank regulator. That’s why I would want Cole at the hearing. Ask him: if you had to choose between relaxing capital requirements and getting rid of mark-to-market, which would you choose? If he disagrees with me, then go with what he says. Incidentally, there is an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal that says we should keep mark-to-market accounting.

The question for Bernanke is this: if the Paulson plan is defeated, can he do enough with capital requirements and other tools to keep money flowing to good borrowers, particularly small business? If the answer is “yes,” then I think there is a credible alternative to the Paulson plan. Wall Street may not like it, but the public will be protected from a Great Depression scenario. If Bernanke says he doesn’t have the tools to free up bank lending, and if he thinks that things are going to really freeze up for good borrowers, then I guess we have to default to the Paulson plan.

[Cross-posted from EconLog]

Some Talking Points

For not doing a bailout:

  1. We don’t need to bail out Wall Street to protect Main Street. All we have to do is make sure that sound borrowers, especially small businesses, have access to credit. Banks can do the job, although regulators may have to reduce capital requirements.
  2. The mortgage securitization industry is brain-dead. If it does not revive on its own, we should not spend taxpayer money trying to resuscitate it. The industry right now is a focal point of rent-seeking, but it has little relevance to the economy as a whole.
  3. The stock market seems to want a bailout. While I hope for higher stock prices, I think that public policy needs to take into account more than just daily fluctuations in the Dow. In 1971, the market gave a huge thumbs-up to wage and price controls, which turned out to have damaging economic effects that persisted for years.
  4. There is no reason to rush. President Bush wants to ram this through without deliberation, because that is how he operates. The Democrats want to act without deliberation, because putting the financial sector under government control is what they want. The rest of us would be better off if the issue were carefully debated first.

[Cross-posted from EconLog]

Mark Sanford on Bailouts

South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, who spoke last Saturday night to our Cato Club 200 retreat, has a great column in the Washington Post today on the federal government’s accelerating tendency to respond to every crisis with an expansion of its powers. He writes:

An ever-expanding scope of federal commitment and power is not what made this country great. Expanded power in one place comes at a cost in other places. American cornerstones such as individual initiative and an entrepreneurial spirit — born in free and open societies with private property rights and the rule of law — have never fit particularly well within the context of an ever-growing federal government.

For 200 years, the “business model” in our country has rested on a simple fact: that while one may reap rewards from taking risks, one should also be prepared to face the consequences of those risks. Some of the proposed actions with regard to the credit market turn that business model on its head — absolving those who took too much risk, or bought too much house, from the weight of their own choices. If Congress passes the proposed bailout, we will be destined to have far greater problems in time, leaving those who are prudent in their finances to foot the bill for those who are not.

He goes on to appeal to the wisdom of Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and Edward Gibbon in cautioning Congress not to put us on the path to “decline and fall.”

Bonus: Mark Sanford on Real ID here (podcast audio), here (speech video) and here (speech PDF).

“Too Tasty to Fail”

The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – housed at the U.S. Dept. of Commerce because Dick Nixon wasn’t getting along with his own Secretary of the Interior – has determined that the decline in the harvest of Chesapeake Bay blue crabs is a “commercial fishery failure.”  With that declaration by the “stewards” of the nation’s fisheries, Chesapeake crab fishermen are looking at a bailout (popular word these days) of up to 15 million taxpayer dollars over the next three years.

The Examiner reports that Maryland Watermen’s Association President Larry Simns and his members were “elated.”  Go figure.  Simns says that this is not a handout because the money would be used to put the crabbers to work restoring fisheries, planting trees, etc.  Perhaps they can staff the exhibits at the NOAA-partnered Smithsonian Institution’s “Ocean Hall” opening this weekend too.

What kind of message does this latest government intervention send to other commercial fishermen?  Overfish, deplete your source of income, and the taxpayer will numb your pain.  Of course, NOAA bureaucrats will then cite resulting fishery depletions as justification for a budget increase.  Big Government 101.

The Washington Post Visits Cato

In the Washington Post this morning:

Bailout Raises Libertarians’ Market Value: Cato Institute’s Scholars Pained and Pumped By Government Action

[F]aced with a proposed $700 billion government bailout of  Wall Street, this town’s most gung-ho libertarians and free-marketeers are reaching for their coffee and their keyboards. They are invigorated. The prospect of doom and ruination for everything they hold dear only makes them stronger.

Another $700 Billion

For the second time in six years, the Bush administration has asked Congress for nearly unlimited authority without an independent professional review of the evidence that led the administration to request such authority.

In making the case for the Iraq war resolution, according to Senator John D. Rockefeller, “the administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when it was unsubstantiated, contradicted or even nonexistent. As a result, the American people were led to believe that the threat from Iraq was much greater than actually existed.”

As it turned out, of course, no “weapons of mass destruction” were ever discovered.

The skeletal proposal for the Troubled Asset Relief Program states that “Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency. The Secretary is authorized to take such actions as the Secretary deems necessary to carry out the authorities in this act without regard to any other provision of law regarding public contracts” – again without an independent professional review of the evidence that led the administration to request such extraordinary authority.

In both cases, the administration requested urgent congressional approval of these measures when members of Congress were anxious to go home to run for reelection. And a final irony: the total direct cost of the Iraq war to date has been about $700 billion, the same amount that the administration has requested to buy bad mortgages.

The Constant Bailer

Over the last couple of weeks, the nation has been understandably preoccupied with faltering financial houses and federal promises to save them. Save them, of course, for the public good, to the tune of roughly 700 billion taxpayer dollars. (Or is it 1 trillion taxpayer dollars? Oh, what’s a few hundred billion among friends?)

These happenings have inspired a lot of folks to declare truly free enterprise a failure and conclude that government must do more to “manage the economy.” But before we accept all that, let’s put the supposed failure of freedom—and magnificence of government—in a little context by considering something government has managed for a long time: public schooling.

In the 2004-05 school year (the latest with available data), the nation spent about $520 billion, adjusted for inflation, on public schooling, a figure that in two years would surpass the utterly atrocious $1 trillion some people fear taxpayers are about to eat saving investment bankers. And, of course, we’ve been paying through the nose for public schools for decades. But what do we have to show for it? Flat achievement, sinking international academic standing, and a lot more teachers and school employees living off the taxpayers.

Without question, from taxpayer and simple justice perspectives, the proposed rescue of private companies that took big chances and lost is unconscionable. It’s hardly, however, a sign that free markets don’t work. Indeed, considered alongside the perpetual bailout that is public schooling, it just highlights once again that government—the constant bailer—is the real problem, not a free market that would punish both bad bankers, and bad schools, if only it were allowed.