Topic: Regulatory Studies

A Successful IPO Does Not a Justifiable Bailout Make

There seems to be a lot of confusion about the meaning of GM’s IPO today.  A common narrative in today’s media is that GM’s return to the stock market affirms the wisdom of the auto bailout.  Some tougher customers in the media insist on a higher threshold being met—that taxpayers get back the entirety of their $50 billion investment in GM—before declaring “mission accomplished.” And then there are the rabid partisans who—in their seething animosity toward the Obama administration—reach conclusions devoid of logic and rich only in conspiratorial-mindedness.  For example, yesterday I was contacted by a media outlet vetting this conclusion: “The IPO is evidence of the failure of the bailout because taxpayers were excluded from buying shares at the IPO price and, therefore, denied the opportunity to get their money back.”  Huh?

All of those analyses are wrong.  Let me dispense with the last one first, as it simply betrays a gross misunderstanding of how taxpayers are on the hook.  By divesting of GM (i.e., selling its shares), the government is beginning to make the taxpayer whole.  But just as there were no checks written directly from taxpayers to GM, there will be no checks written to taxpayers, as the Treasury liquidates the public’s share of GM.  Whether main street Americans could participate in the IPO has nothing to do with making the taxpayer whole.  And, by the way, IPOs typically limit sales of shares at the initial price to a chosen few.  So let’s just shelve the canned indignation on this claim.  It’s a distraction.

Here’s the real issue.  Today’s IPO is nothing more than testament to the fact that the government threw GM a lifeline, enabling the company to expunge most of its debts and firm up its balance sheet on terms more favorable than a normal bankruptcy process would have yielded.  That enabled GM to partake of the cyclically growing U.S. auto market in 2010 and turn a profit through the first three quarters.  So what?  Did anyone really think that a chosen company so coddled and insulated from market realities couldn’t turn a short-run profit?  Yes, even GM, under those favorable conditions should have been expected to turn a profit this year.

But at what cost?  That answer—even the question—seems to be elusive in the public discussion of the IPO.  The cost was not only $50 billion—the amount diverted to GM in the first place.  Nor was it that $50 billion minus the proceeds raised in today’s IPO (and minus the proceeds raised later when the government divests entirely of GM – it will still hold 33% of GM after today).  In other words, making taxpayers whole does not absolve the Bush and Obama administration’s for the auto intervention.  Recouping the $50 billion only gets us partially out of the hole.  (And I’m not even sure who “us” includes because the costs are so far reaching.)

Yes, GM is making sales and accounting for market share, but only at the expense of the other automakers.  Had GM been forced to severely atrophy or liquidate, the other automakers would have had greater revenues, more market share, and probably higher profits).  They would have been able to attract GM’s best engineers and line workers.  They would have more money to invest in R&D and to lead the industry into the future.  Instead, by keeping GM in the mix, some of those industry resources remain misallocated in a company that the evolutionary market process would have made smaller or extinct. 

The auto industry wasn’t rescued with the GM bailout.  GM was “rescued.”  By rescuing GM, the government overrode market forces, and there are significant costs to assign for that.  Witness the stagnant economy with 9.6 percent unemployment.  Is it not plausible that businesses are sitting on their cash and not investing or hiring because of the fear inspired by the government interventions starting with the bank and auto bailouts?  It’s more than plausible.  The regime uncertainty that persists to this day was spawned by the GM bailout and other interventions.

What about the weakening of the rule of law?  Doesn’t the diversion of TARP funds by the Bush administration, in circumvention of congress’s wishes and in contravention of the language of the law, represent a cost?  How about the property right of preferred bondholders who were forced to take pennies on their investment dollars under the Obama bankruptcy plan?  Any costs there?  What about U.S. moral authority to dissuade other goverments from meddling in their markets or indulging industrial policy?  That may be costly to U.S. enterprises.  And with the government still holding a third of GM, its hard to swallow the idea that public interest will be the driver of policies affecting the auto industry.  And that suggests even more costs.

But don’t mistake this blog post for an anti-IPO rant.  I’m in favor of the IPO.  It couldn’t have happened sooner.  But I suspect the investment bankers, the administration, and the other members of GM’s Board of Directors reckoned that, with the hype over the new Chevy Volt and the recent newsleak of GM’s $43 billion in unorthodox tax deferrments on the balance sheet, now was the perfect time to go public.

When The Government Is The False Advertiser

I had an op-ed in the Washington Times yesterday on government’s growing participation in public-health scare campaigns demonizing everyday foods that are fattening, salty, or thought to be bad for us in other ways. In particular, I singled out Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s New York City Department of Health, which has followed up one scientifically dubious ad campaign on sweetened soft drinks (“What can we get away with?” asked one official) with an even worse – in fact, grossly misleading and manipulative – attack on salt in processed foods:

It shows a can of soup bursting at the seams with table salt, whole mounds and piles of it. The city’s underlying point is not 100 percent off-base - healthful in most other ways, conventional canned soup is a relatively salty food - but the actual amount of salt in a can is more like 1 teaspoon, not the third of a cup or more depicted in the city’s ridiculously exaggerated photo. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Bloomberg soup ad is built on a visual lie.

What would happen if a private advertiser tried to get away with imagery as misleading as this? Well, in 1970, in a case still taught in business schools, Campbell’s got caught manipulating the soup pictures in its ads; its photographers had put marbles at the bottom of the bowl so that the pleasing vegetables would be more visible on top. The Federal Trade Commission filed a deceptive-advertising complaint to make the company stop.

The FTC’s authority would not extend so far as to ordering New York City to cease its misrepresentations, and for various reasons (including the principle that states and localities ought largely to retain independence from federal dictation) we should be glad it doesn’t. But couldn’t we at least ask that the federal taxpayer not be made to subsidize the false advertising?

Last month, the federal Centers for Disease Control - headed by Bloomberg’s own [former health commissioner Dr. Thomas] Frieden - announced a $412,000 grant to assist the city in its anti-salt efforts.

The full piece is here. Incidentally, via the American Council on Science and Health comes word of a new Harvard study finding that Americans’ intake of salt is almost exactly the same as it was 50 years ago; it also seems that international studies find that people in other countries tend to pursue and attain very similar levels of salt intake. If accurate, that would cast doubt on two key themes of public health alarmism, namely that America is experiencing some sort of epidemic of exposure to salty processed foods, and that such an epidemic underlies rising hypertension rates (which, as the article explains, may owe more to obesity than to salt intake). I could not resist a chuckle at the name of the press outlet reporting the results of the new study: Bloomberg Business Week.

The GM ‘Turnaround’ in Bastiat’s View

GM’s long-rumored initial public stock offering will take place Thursday and self-anointed savior of the U.S. auto industry, Steven Rattner, is pretty bullish about the prospect of investors turning out in droves. 

I’ve been saying for a while that I thought the government’s exposure [euphemism for taxpayer losses] in the auto bailout was in the $10-billion to $20-billion range.

But since investor interest has pushed the initial price up from the $26-to-$29 per share range to the $32-$33 range, Rattner now believes:

[T]his exposure is in the single-digit billion range, and arguably potentially better.

I won’t argue with Rattner’s numbers.  After all, they affirm one of my many criticisms of the bailout: that taxpayers would never recoup the value of their “investment.”  My bigger problem is with Rattner’s cavalier disregard for the other enduring—and arguably more significant—costs of the auto bailouts.

Rattner is like the foil in Frederic Bastiat’s excellent, but not-famous-enough, 1850 parable, That Which is Seen and That Which is Unseen.    Rattner touts what is seen, namely that GM and Chrysler still exist.  And they exist because of his and his colleagues’ commitment to a plan to ensure their survival, along with the hundreds of thousands (if not millions, as some “estimates” had it) of jobs that were imperiled had those companies vanished.  (For starters, I very much question even what is seen here. I am skeptical of the counterfactual that GM and Chrysler would have disappeared and that there would have been significantly more job loss in the industry than there actually was during the recession and restructuring.  But I’ll grant his view of what is seen because, frankly, the specifics are irrelevant in the final analysis).

For what is seen, Rattner admirably admits of a cost.  And that cost is not insignificant.  It is anywhere from $65 billion to $82 billion (the range of the cost of the bailout) minus what is being paid back and what investors are willing to pay for GM shares—in the “single-digit billion range,” as Rattner says.  But Rattner is willing to stand by that trade-off, claiming his efforts and the billions in “government exposure” were a small price to pay for saving the U.S. auto industry, as it were.  It’s merely a difference in philosophy or compassion that animates bailout critics, according to this position.

No.  Not so fast.  All along (quite contemptuously in this op-ed, which I criticized here) Rattner has been unwilling to acknowledge the costs that are unseen.  Those unseen costs include:

  • the added uncertainty that pervades the private sector and assigns higher risks and thus higher costs to investing and hiring (whom might government favor or punish next?);
  • the diversion of resources from productive to political purposes in the business community (instead of buying that machinery to churn out better or more lawn mower engines, better to hire lobbyists to keep Washington apprised of how important we are or how this or that policy might be beneficial to the national employment picture!);
  • excessive risk-taking and other uneconomic behavior that falls under the rubric of moral hazard from entities that might consider themselves too-big-to-fail (perhaps, even, the New GM!);
  • growing aversion to—and rising cost of—corporate debt (don’t forget what happened to Chrysler’s “preferred” bondholders in the bankruptcy process!);
  • the sales and market share that should have gone to Ford or Honda or VW as part of the evolutionary market process;
  • the fruitful R&D expenditures of those more disciplined companies;
  • the expansion of job opportunities at those companies and their suppliers;
  • productivity gains passed on to workers in the form of higher wages or to consumers as lower prices;
  • the diminution of the credibility needed to discourage foreign governments from meddling in markets, often to the detriment of U.S. enterprises.

 The list goes on.

 Yet, Rattner, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the economy remains stuck in the mire, speaks triumphantly of the successful auto bailout.  But nobody ever doubted that taxpayer resources in the hands of policymakers willing to push the bounds of legality could “rescue” GM from a fate it deserved.  The concern was that policymakers would do just that, leaving behind wreckage to our institutions not immediately discernible.  But anemic economic activity, 9.6 percent unemployment, and a private sector unwilling to invest is pretty darn discernible at this point.

Rattner should take off the tails, put down the champagne flute, and acknowledge what was originally unseen.

Lame-Duck Menace: The Paycheck Fairness Act

At Compensation Cafe, Stephanie Thomas explores some of the “nonsensical implications” of a misnamed bill that’s a high Obama administration priority in the lame duck session:

Let’s assume that John and Jane have identical characteristics (education, work experience, etc.) except for gender. ABC Company makes offers of employment to John and Jane on the same day, for the same position, for the same starting salary: $45,000. Jane accepts the offer, but John negotiates the salary, and ends up with $50,000. Under the current equal pay laws, there’s no problem; John is earning more because he negotiated and Jane did not. Makes sense, right? Under the Paycheck Fairness Act, ABC Company would be guilty of gender discrimination.

Here’s another example. Assume that Sam and Sally have the same education, work experience, etc., and are both hired by WidgetCo on the same day. WidgetCo sets Sam and Sally’s starting salary at $2,500 more than they were making at their previous job. Sam was earning $37,500 at his previous job, and Sally was earning $36,000; their starting salaries at WidgetCo are $40,000 and $38,500. Seems reasonable, doesn’t it? Under the Paycheck Fairness Act, WidgetCo would be guilty of gender discrimination.

One final example. Assume that Brad and Bridget both work for Alpha Inc., have the same job title, same level of responsibility, etc., and they are both earning $100,000 per year. Brad asks for a 5% raise, but Bridget doesn’t ask for a raise. Brad gets the raise and ends up earning more than Bridget. Again, no problems here, right? Wrong - under the Paycheck Fairness Act, Alpha Inc. would be guilty of gender discrimination.

“Making matters worse, under the new law, damage awards would be uncapped, and class-action procedures loosened. Bring on the trial lawyers,” notes a Chicago Tribune editorial. For more on this very bad bill, check out the papers and presentations from a panel last week put on by our friends at the Hudson Institute. Earlier here and, at Overlawyered, here, here, etc.

VIDEO: Joe Biden’s Weak Case for Government Meddling

Vice President Joe Biden believes that human progress depends almost entirely on government vision and government incentive. Donald J. Boudreaux, Cato Institute adjunct scholar and George Mason University economics professor, details why Biden is wrong both generally and in the specific case he touts:



Produced by Caleb O. Brown. Shot and edited by Evan Banks.

This Month at Cato Unbound

This month at Cato Unbound we’re debating campaign finance regulation, with a panel of notable contributors and a big, new idea.

That idea is semi-disclosure, in which information about campaign funding is collected and disseminated, but, much like the census, personal names and addresses aren’t attached. Political scientist Bruce Cain suggests semi-disclosure might break the impasse between privacy and the right to know. Others? Well… you’ll just have to wait and see. Joining us will be Nikki Willoughby of Common Cause, election law scholar Richard Hasen of Loyola Law School, and the Cato Institute’s own John Samples. Discussion will run through the rest of the month on this vital issue to our nation’s democracy.

A Grimm Proceeding

On Tuesday — you may have missed this because of some political developments that day — the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association.  This case is a First Amendment challenge to a California law that prohibits selling violent video games to minors. 

Cato had filed a brief pointing out that, to paraphrase the Four Tops, it’s just the same ol’ song, but with a different meaning whenever a new form of entertainment comes along.  In other words, it is difficult to find any form of entertainment that did not once suffer the ire of parents’ groups, smoldering church bonfires, and would-be government protectors of children. From the Brothers Grimm, to “penny dreadful” novels, to comic books, to movies, to video games, each new entertainment medium was said to achieve innovative levels of mind control that corrupted children with flashing pictures, bright colors, or suggestive mental imagery.  

And it seems like the justices were listening.

Throughout a lively oral argument that primarily dealt with the vagueness of trying to define a “violent video game,” justices and counsel consistently discussed the rogues gallery of past entertainment industries that were said to corrupt our children. At one point Justice Scalia asked California’s attorney what “deviant violence” is, to which the attorney responded, “deviant would be departing from established norms.” Scalia asked incredulously, “There are established norms of violence?” The attorney began to say “Well, if we look back…” before Scalia cut him off with, “Some of the Grimm’s fairy tales are quite grim, to tell you the truth.” When California’s attorney said he would not advocate banning Grimm’s fairy tales, Justice Ginsburg came back, asking, “What’s the difference?…[I]f you are supposing a category of violent materials dangerous to children, then how do you cut it off at video games? What about films? What about comic books? Grimm’s fairy tales?”

Later in the argument, Paul Smith, attorney for the Entertainment Merchants Association, referenced Cato’s argument: “We do have a new medium here, Your Honor, but we have a history in this country of new mediums coming along and people vastly overreacting to them, thinking the sky is falling, our children are all going to be turned into criminals.”

Granted, these arguments could have been raised even without Cato’s brief, but exchanges like these demonstrate the value of amicus briefs. Along with novel legal arguments, they can supply the Court with historical, statistical, sociological, and other information that is relevant to deciding the case.

You can read the argument transcript here and the audio will be available tomorrow at this site.  Thanks to Cato legal associate Trevor Burrus for his continuing work on this case (including with this blogpost).