Tag: Bailout

Details of the Auto Bailout You Won’t Hear in Charlotte

The central economic selling point of the Obama reelection team is that the president saved the U.S. auto industry. That such a contestable proposition serves as the administration’s economic headline does more to underscore its abysmal record than to inspire confidence in its continued economic stewardship.

The administration didn’t save the auto industry. The stronger case is that it damaged the auto industry along with several important institutions vital to capitalism’s proper functioning. However, it should be granted that President Obama’s commandeering of GM’s and Chrysler’s bankruptcy process saved jobs at those companies and elsewhere in their supply chains (and provided an opportunity to dole out spoils for politically favored interests). How many jobs were saved is impossible to determine because it’s not clear what would have happened to GM’s and Chrysler’s assets had a normal, non-political bankruptcy process been allowed to unfold.

Yes, jobs were saved for the time being in Michigan, Ohio, and a few other industrial states in the Midwest. That is what can be seen. And politicians are hardwired to tout the benefits—and only the benefits—of their policies.

But an informed citizenry should insist on a proper accounting of the costs of those policies, as well—not just the losses put on the taxpayers’ tab (right now taxpayers’ “investment” in GM is $27 billion, but the public’s 500 million shares of GM stock is worth only $10 billion), but the unseen costs.

Sure some jobs were preserved in some locations, but what about the less visible consequences and ripple effects? What isn’t so easily seen, but is every bit as important to assessing the auto interventions is the effects on the other auto companies and their workers (i.e., the majority of the U.S. auto industry). Will the public remember or know enough to attribute layoffs of American workers at Ford or Toyota or Kia during the next downturn in auto demand to the fact that a necessary reckoning on the supply side was precluded by the interventions of 2009?

The auto industry is plagued with overcapacity, which is a problem that demands a thinning of the herd. GM and Chrysler, through their own relatively poor decisions with respect to labor relations, product offerings, and quality management were failing by the market’s judgment and were the rightful candidates to be thinned. But that process was forestalled. In 2013, auto workers in Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, Indiana, and even Michigan and Ohio may lose their jobs because GM and Chrysler workers’ jobs were spared in 2009.

That is only one of the many unseen or under-rug-swept costs of the auto bailouts. The following passage from congressional testimony I gave last year identifies several others:

It is galling to hear administration officials characterize the auto bailouts as “successful.” The word should be off-limits when describing this unfortunate chapter in U.S. economic history. At most, bailout proponents and apologists might respectfully argue — and still be wrong, however — that the bailouts were necessary evils undertaken to avert greater calamity.

But calling the bailouts “successful” is to whitewash the diversion of funds from the Troubled Assets Relief Program by two administrations for purposes unauthorized by Congress; the looting and redistribution of claims against GM’s and Chrysler’s assets from shareholders and debt-holders to pensioners; the use of questionable tactics to bully stakeholders into accepting terms to facilitate politically desirable outcomes; the unprecedented encroachment by the executive branch into the finest details of the bankruptcy process to orchestrate what bankruptcy law experts describe as “Sham” sales of Old Chrysler to New Chrysler and Old GM to New GM; the costs of denying Ford and the other more deserving automakers the spoils of competition; the costs of insulating irresponsible actors, such as the United Autoworkers, from the outcomes of an apolitical bankruptcy proceeding; the diminution of U.S. moral authority to counsel foreign governments against similar market interventions; and the lingering uncertainty about the direction of policy under the current administration that pervades the business environment to this very day.

In addition to the above, there is the fact that taxpayers are still short tens of billions of dollars on account of the GM bailout without serious prospects for ever being made whole. Thus, acceptance of the administration’s pronouncement of auto bailout success demands profound gullibility or willful ignorance. Sure, GM has experienced recent profits and Chrysler has repaid much of its debt to the Treasury. But if proper judgment is to be passed, then all of the bailout’s costs and benefits must be considered. Otherwise, calling the bailout a success is like applauding the recovery of a drunken driver after an accident, while ignoring the condition of the family he severely maimed.

Here is the entirety of that testimony, and few other articles, op-eds, and blog posts on the topic.

‘Leavitt’ Is Republican for ‘Solyndra’

Mike Leavitt is a Republican, a former Utah governor, a former Secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush, and now owns a firm called Leavitt Partners, which makes money by helping states implement ObamaCare’s health insurance “exchanges” and take advantage of ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion. Let’s stipulate from the outset that Leavitt and his staff are doing what they think is best for the nation. Still, as this article in yesterday’s New York Times explores, it’s odd that Mitt Romney chose as one of his top advisers a guy who’s profiting from ObamaCare:

If Republicans in Congress agree on anything, it is their desire to eradicate President Obama’s health care law. But one of the top advisers to Mitt Romney, the party’s likely presidential nominee, has spent the last two years advising states and private insurers on how to comply with the law…

Mr. Romney has named Mr. Leavitt — a longtime friend, former governor of Utah and former federal health secretary — to plan the transition for what both hope will be a Romney administration.

Mr. Leavitt’s full-time job is running his consulting company, Leavitt Partners, which is based in Salt Lake City and has advised officials in Mississippi, New Mexico and Pennsylvania, among other states…

Michael F. Cannon, director of health policy studies at the Cato Institute, said: “It is strange to see Mr. Leavitt, a former Republican governor and former secretary of health and human services, helping and encouraging states to carry out this law for which Republicans have so much antipathy. It deepens suspicion as to whether Romney is sufficiently committed to repealing the Obama health care law.”

Twila Brase, president of the Citizens’ Council for Health Freedom, a free market group that is mobilizing opposition to an exchange in Minnesota, said: “Mike Leavitt is an enabler of Obamacare. He has taken advantage of Obamacare to expand his own business, instead of helping governors resist a federal takeover of health care.”

Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius has thrown nearly a billion dollars at states in a desperate attempt to bribe them into establishing Exchanges. We do not yet know how much of that cash has found its way to Leavitt Partners:

Natalie Gochnour, a spokeswoman for Leavitt Partners, said its work with states was only part of its business, but she refused to say how much the company had been paid for such work.

Perhaps some day we will, and “Leavitt” will become synonymous with “Solyndra.”

Also, by my count the Times article devoted eight column-inches to such pro-Exchange nonsense as the idea that an ObamaCare Exchange could “run on free market principles” or Leavitt’s claim that “continued inaction by states risks an Obama-style federal exchange being foisted upon a state.” Yet the Times cited no one who challenges those claims. I have no problem with the Times posing difficult questions to Romney. Why should ObamaCare get a pass?

Threat to ObamaCare Is No ‘Drafting Error’

It turns out that ObamaCare makes an essential part of its regulatory scheme—an $800 billion bailout of private health insurance companies—conditional upon state governments creating the health insurance “exchanges” envisioned in the law.

This was no “drafting error.” During congressional consideration of the bill, its lead author, Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), acknowledged that he intentionally and purposefully made that bailout conditional on states implementing their own Exchanges.

Now that it appears that as many as 30 states will not create Exchanges, the law is in peril. When states refuse to establish an Exchange, they are blocking not only that bailout, but also the $2,000 per worker tax ObamaCare imposes on employers. If enough states refuse to establish an Exchange, they can effectively force Congress to repeal much or all of the law.

That might explain why the IRS is literally rewriting the statute. On May 24, the IRS finalized a regulation that says the law’s $800 billion insurance-industry bailout will not be conditional on states creating Exchanges. With the stroke of pen, the IRS (1) stripped states of the power Congress gave them to shield employers from that $2,000 per-worker tax, (2) imposed that illegal tax on employers whom Congress exempted, and (3) issued up to $800 billion of tax credits and direct subsidies to private health insurance companies—without any congressional authorization whatsoever.

Some supporters of the law claim that Congress never intended to give states the power to block ObamaCare’s insurance-industry bailout. No doubt there are many in Congress who held that position. But they lost. If they’re unhappy now, they should take it up with Max Baucus.

What they should not do is set a precedent where the IRS can, on its own discretion, tax one group and subsidize another to the tune of $800 billion.

For more, see Jonathan Adler’s and my forthcoming Health Matrix article, “Taxation Without Representation: The Illegal IRS Rule to Expand Tax Credits Under the PPACA,” which has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Politico, and NPR.

Fidel Castro, Medicare Beneficiary?

There’s no proof yet, but it looks an awful lot like Medicare might be subsidizing the Castro brothers.

I, for one,  was not surprised to read that Medicare payments for non-existent medical services are ending up in Cuban (read: government-controlled) banks. Nor that “accused scammers are escaping in droves to Cuba and other Latin American countries to avoid prosecution — with more than 150 fugitives now wanted for stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from the U.S. healthcare program, according to the FBI and court records.”

In fact, I have been wondering for some time when we would see evidence that foreign governments have been stealing from Medicare. The official (read: conservative) estimates are that Medicare and Medicaid lose $70 billion each year to fraud and improper payments, a result of having almost zero meaningful controls in place. That’s practically an open invitation to steal from American taxpayers. Kleptocratic governments—and other organized-crime rings—would be insane not to wet their beaks.

In this National Review article, I explain how easily it could happen:

Last year, the feds indicted 44 members of an Armenian crime syndicate for operating a sprawling Medicare-fraud scheme. The syndicate had set up 118 phony clinics and billed Medicare for $35 million. They transferred at least some of their booty overseas. Who knows what LBJ’s Great Society is funding?

I also explain how these vast amounts of fraud aren’t going to stop without fundamental Medicare and Medicaid reform. Give the National Review article a read, and tell me if you share my suspicion that Medicare is bankrolling other governments.

Blocking Obamacare Exchanges Is Only Risky for Obamacare Profiteers

USA Today reports that groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Cato Institute have had much success in discouraging states from creating Obamacare’s health insurance “exchanges.” Even the Heritage Foundation, which once counseled states to establish “defensive” Obamacare exchanges, now counsels states to refuse to create them and to send all exchange-related grants back to Washington.

In response, Obamacare contractor and self-described conservative Republican Cheryl Smith sniffs:

When you work at a think-tank, it’s really easy to come up with these really high-risk plans.

Except, there is no risk to states. The only risks to this strategy are that health insurance companies won’t get half a trillion dollars in taxpayer subsidies, and that certain Obamacare contractors won’t get any more of those lucrative exchange contracts.

‘We Are Not Deciding between Regulation and Autonomy, We Are Deciding Whether or Not We Want a Puppet Government’

That’s how Charlie Arlinghaus, president of New Hampshire’s Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, describes the decision confronting states about whether to create an ObamaCare Exchange in this op-ed for the New Hampshire Union-Leader.

Let’s Divest of GM Yesterday

Writing in today’s Washington Post, Charles Lane posits that the time is now for the U.S. Treasury to divest of its remaining 500 million shares of General Motors stock.  I agree with that conclusion, but not with Lane’s rationale or his recommendation for a heavy-handed, government-imposed exit strategy.

Just to recap: the Treasury recouped $23 billion of taxpayers’ $50 billion outlay when it sold GM shares to the public in an IPO in November 2010; the outstanding 500 million shares in government coffers must be sold at an average price of $54 to recover the remaining $27 billion; the IPO price was $33; today’s price is $21.69.  If all 500 million shares could be sold at today’s price, the Treasury would raise $10.8 billion, leaving taxpayers at a loss of just over $16 billion. (Of course, the sale of such a large number of shares would drive the average selling price way below today’s price, resulting in a much larger taxpayer loss.)

Lane is correct to conclude that GM’s immediate future isn’t looking quite so rosy. Demand is tanking in Europe. Concerns remain about whether GM will continue to be able to fund its $128 billion pension plan. And sales of the “game-changing” Chevy Volt have been lagging since the vehicle’s commercial introduction some 13 months ago—well before its engines demonstrated an annoying propensity to spontaneously combust. (Not to worry, says GM’s public relations team: the engines don’t seem to catch fire while being driven, only an hour or two after they’ve been parked in the garage.) Recognizing that that qualifier hasn’t been reassuring enough, GM is now offering to buy back any Chevy Volt it has ever sold, which doesn’t bode well for the bottom line, but also affirms how few of these Government Motors show pieces have even sold.

That grim analysis is the basis for Lane’s preference for government divestment now. There is more downside risk than upside potential. It is an argument based on market-timing, rather than on the principle that bad things happen when the government has a stake in the outcome of a race that it can influence. Sure, the administration would love to divest of GM at a profit to taxpayers. But the longer it is allowed to wait for that train to arrive, the greater the temptation to grease the skids.

The government should divest now. It should have divested in June, when it was first legally permissible to do so.  But the administration (following, by logic, what would have been Lane’s advice at the time) rolled the dice, expecting the stock value to rise. Instead it fell. And then there was this.

But my bigger problem is with Lane’s proposal for a managed divestment.  He writes:

It’s time to cut our losses.  Treasury should start selling its stake in GM.

And I know just the buyer: GM. The company is sitting on more than $33 billion in cash, about triple the market value of Treasury’s 500 million shares, which is roughly $10.8 billion.

Though GM wants to dedicate much of its cash to shoring up its pension plan, it could still absorb most or all of Treasury’s shares, even if Treasury charges a modest premium over the current market price, as it should.

Lane proposes this under the guise of some perverse fealty to a “free-enterprise economy,” as it would spare shareholders from the stock price-depressing impact of an unnatural 500 million share dump. But those shareholders knew the risks they were taking when they purchased GM stock in the first place. They certainly knew that the largest single shareholder didn’t intend to hold its position for very long. Lane’s argument for protecting those shareholders in the name of free-enterprise in unconvincing, if not misplaced.

Furthermore, Lane’s zeal for sticking it to GM seems to eclipse any real commitment to free markets. Forcing GM to divert resources from where management wants to commit them in order to achieve some favorable political outcome (a smaller taxpayer loss) is just as coercive as some of the administration’s actions on the road to GM’s nationalization in the first place.

GM should not be entitled to any favors or exceptional treatment by virtue of its ownership structure. To be certain of that, it should be 100 privatized yesterday. But likewise, GM should not be subject to compensatory or otherwise countervailing policies designed to punish or remove any perceived advantage. For starters, it is impossible to measure the benefits received or the penalties suffered with any precision. Demanding that GM not be exposed to special treatment goes in both directions.