Tag: Bailout

Lehman’s Failure Taught Us Nothing

Several commentators have reacted to Senator McConnell’s floor statement regarding the Dodd bill as a defense of “doing nothing”.  And accordingly argue that such a position would be, in the words of Simon Johnson, both dangerous and irresponsible.  This familiar canard is based upon the oft repeated assertion that the failure of Lehman proved that we cannot simply let large financial companies enter bankruptcy.

The simple, but important, fact is that we have no idea what would have happened had we let AIG and Bear go into bankruptcy proceedings.  Nor do we know what would have happened if Lehman had been saved.  Macroeconomics does not have the luxury of running natural experiments to determine the impact of a corporate failure.   Scholars have an obligation to accurately reflect the uncertainties in the debate.  Those that assert Lehman proved anything, are being at best disingenuous, and at worst, dishonest.

Let us, however, put forth a few things we do know:

  1. We know none of Lehman’s counterparties failed as a result of Lehman’s failures.  Just as we know none of AIG”s counterparties would have failed if they did not get 100 cents on the dollar from their CDS positions.  So where exactly is the proof of contagion?
  2. We know we had a nasty housing bubble.  We were going to lose millions of jobs in construction and real estate regardless of what we did.  We knew financial institutions heavily invested in housing would suffer.  How exactly would saving Lehman have prevented any of that?

The debate over ending bailouts and too-big-to-fail will not progress, we will not learn a thing, if we let simple, empty assertion pass as fact.  Much of the public remains angry at Washington because those responsible, such as Bernanke and Geithner, have never laid out a believable or plausible narrative for the bailouts.  It always comes back to “panic.”  If we are ever to hope to return to being a country governed by the rule of law, rather than the whims of men, then we need a lot more of an explanation than “panic.”

Obama Proposes Further Delay on Fannie & Freddie

President Obama seems to be slowly waking up to the fact that the American public has grown tired of the endless bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  The public has also rejected the talking point that Fannie and Freddie were simply victims of a 100 year storm in the housing market.  So what’s Obama’s response?  To ask for public comment and have public forums.

This strategy is clearly one of delaying and avoiding any reform of Fannie and Freddie while pretending to care about the issue.  Where was the public comment and forums on the Volcker rule?  Seemingly the standard is that fixing the real causes of the financial crisis should be delayed and debated while efforts like the Dodd bill, which do nothing to avoid future financial crises, should be rushed without debate or comment.

Even more disingenious is couching reform of Fannie and Freddie under the rubic of “fixing mortgage finance”.  This is no more than an attempt to take the focus away from Fannie and Freddie and shift it to “abusive lending” and other non-causes of the crisis.

This isn’t rocket science.  The role of Fannie and Freddie in the financial crisis is well understood.  The only thing missing is the willingness of Obama and Congress to stand up to the special interests and protect the taxpayer against future bailouts.

Obama to Increase FHA Risk

The Federal Housing Administration is heading toward a taxpayer bailout, yet the president’s latest mortgage modification plan would further increase the agency’s exposure to risky mortgages. Mark Calabria calls it a “Backdoor Bank Bailout.”

The administration’s plan would encourage borrowers who owe more than their house is worth to refinance into FHA-insured mortgages. Therefore, the risk of a future foreclosure on these mortgages would fall to the government and taxpayers instead of private lenders.

A recent study from economists at New York University found that the FHA is underestimating its risk exposure. One of the problems is that the FHA isn’t properly accounting for the risk to underwater FHA mortgages that have been refinanced into new FHA mortgages. So it’s hard to see how the president’s plan to refinance private underwater mortgages into FHA mortgages won’t further exacerbate the situation.

To get these mortgages in better shape so the FHA can insure them, $14 billion in TARP money is going to be used to pay private lenders to reduce the amount borrowers owe on their mortgages. Some of this money will also be used to cover eventual losses on these loans. As a taxpayer whose mortgage is underwater, and who would rather go bankrupt than accept a government handout, I find it infuriating that my tax dollars are being used to bail out others in a similar situation.

But with government housing programs, it’s standard practice for officials to cannonball into the pool and worry about who gets splashed by the water later. On Sunday, CNN.com reported on “FHA’s Florida Fiasco,” where the collapse of the heavily FHA-insured condo market has contributed to the possibility of a FHA bailout. The FHA has now tightened its condo standards, but once again it’s a day late and possibly more than few bucks short.

The new FHA initiative is the latest in a series of efforts to “stabilize” the housing market with more subsidies. Policymakers seem oblivious that it was government interventions that helped instigate the housing meltdown to begin with. The housing market would stabilize itself if the supply of and demand for housing was allowed to be brought back into equilibrium. There would be pain in the short-term, but in the long-term we would have a smoother functioning housing market. Unfortunately, for politicians the long-term means the next election.

Reassessing FHA Risk

As the Federal Housing Administration edges closer to a taxpayer bailout due to the large number of risky mortgage loans it has insured, it continues to insist that no such bailout will be required. However, a new study from a group of economists at New York University finds that the FHA’s assurances might not be based in reality.

According to the study, the actuarial analysis FHA used to determine it won’t need a bailout seriously understates its exposure to risk:

  • More FHA mortgages are underwater than the FHA’s analysis identifies, and unemployment is naturally particularly high in areas where FHA borrowers are furthest underwater. Therefore, potential default costs are underestimated.
  • FHA’s analysis relies on house values that are inaccurate. Overvalued houses means the FHA could end up recouping less than expected on defaults.
  • Underwater FHA mortgages that were “streamlined” into new FHA mortgages are not properly accounted for, which further underestimates risk.
  • The FHA got clobbered on a previous no-downpayment assistance program. However, the current homebuyer tax credit can effectively eliminate downpayments on FHA loans, but its analysis doesn’t take this into consideration.

One of the study’s authors, Prof. Andrew Caplin, writes the following on his website:

Rather than looking to structure the markets of the future, they [policymakers] have stumbled along in business as usual mode, waiting for kind fate to save them. It may. Then again, it may not. Either way, this is not a good way to run a business, or a government for that matter.

How does he see this story playing out?

My best guess is that it will end with a crash in the housing finance sector, with the federal government forced by popular revulsion at mushrooming losses to remove itself almost entirely from the housing finance equation. The Resolution Trust Corporation will look like an amateur warm-up act…

The bottom line is simple. The continuation of “business as usual” is re-creating the essential problem that made the sub-prime crisis so disastrous. Once again, taxpayers have been forced to subsidize the private purchase of massive amounts of residential housing, and to offer guarantees against future losses, without any effort to reduce costs should their funding help turn some markets around. Warren Buffett made huge profits for his shareholders by investing in under-valued assets. By contrast, our leaders are making massive losses for taxpayers by investing in over-valued assets.

See this essay for more on the problems with housing finance and government intervention.

Lessons from the Greek Budget Debacle

Fiscal crises have a predictable pattern.

Step 1 occurs when the economy is prospering and tax revenues are growing faster than forecast.

Step 2 is when politicians use the additional money to increase government spending.

Step 3 is that politicians do not treat the extra tax revenue like a temporary windfall and budget accordingly.Instead, they adopt policies - more entitlements, more bureaucrats - that permanently expand the burden of the public sector.

Step 4 occurs when the economy stumbles (in part because more resources are being diverted from the productive sector to the government) and tax revenues stagnate. If the resulting fiscal gap is large enough, as it is in places such as Greece and California, a crisis atmosphere is created.

Step 5 takes place when politicians solemnly proclaim that “tough measures” are necessary, but very rarely does that mean a reversal of the policies that caused the mess. Instead, the result in higher taxes.

Greece is now at this stage. I’ve already argued that perhaps bankruptcy is the best option for Greece, and I showed the data proving that Greece has a too-much-spending crisis rather than a too-little-revenue crisis. I’ve also commented elsewhere about the feckless behavior of Greek politicians. Sadly, it looks like things are getting even worse. The government has announced a huge increase in the value-added tax, pushing this European version of a national sales tax up to 21 percent. On the spending side of the ledger, though, the government is only proposing to reduce bonuses that are automatically given to bureaucrats three times per year. Here’s an excerpt from the Associated Press report, including a typically hysterical responses from a Greek interest group:

Government officials said the measures would include cuts in civil servant’s annual pay through reducing their Easter, Christmas and vacation bonuses by 30 percent each, and a 2 percentage point increase in sales tax to bring it to 21 percent from the current 19 percent. …One government official, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of the official announcement, said…that “we have exhausted our limits.” …”It is a very difficult day for us … These cuts will take us to the brink,” said Panayiotis Vavouyious, the head of the retired civil servants’ association.

Now, time for some predictions. It is unlikely that higher taxes and cosmetic spending restraint will solve Greece’s fiscal problem. Strong global growth would make a difference, but that also seems doubtful. So Greece will probably move to Step 6, which is a bailout, though it is unclear whether the money will come from other European nations, the European Commission, and/or the European Central Bank.

Step 7 is when politicians in nations such as Spain and Italy decide that financing spending (i.e., buying votes) with money from German and Dutch taxpayers is a swell idea, so they continue their profligate fiscal policies in order to become eligible for bailouts. Step 8 is when there is no more bailout money in Europe and the IMF (i.e., American taxpayers) ride to the rescue. Step 9 occurs when the United States faces a fiscal criss because of too much spending.

For Step 10, read Atlas Shrugged.

Radioactive Corporate Welfare

A good default proposition regarding the government’s role in the economy would state that the government should not loan money to an enterprise if the enterprise in question cannot find one single market actor anywhere in the universe to loan said enterprise a single red cent.  It might suggest – I don’t know – that the investment is rather … dubious.

Alas, like all good propositions regarding the government’s role in the economy, this one is being left by the roadside by the Obama administration.  Unfortunately, the only complaint being made by a not insubstantial segment of the political Right – frequently, the political crowd that is busy decrying “Bailout Nation” – is that the loan guarantees are not fat enough.

I write, of course, about the $8.3 billion federal loan guarantee announced by President Obama this week for Southern Company to build two new nuclear power plants.  The money will be used to guarantee the loans being made by the federal government (via the Federal Financing Bank) to partially cover the cost of Southern’s projected $14 billion nuclear construction project at their Vogtle plant near Waynesboro, Georgia.  The loan guarantees were authorized by Congress in the 2005 Energy Policy Act and, we are told, are the first installment on a total package of $54 billion that the President would like to hand out to facilitate the construction of 7-10 new nuclear power plants (Congress, however, has only authorized $18.5 billion to this point).

The claim being made by some – that the loan guarantees are necessary to jump-start investor interest in new nuclear power plant construction – is not quite correct.  Even these lavish loan guarantees aren’t enough to do that.  In a letter to the U.S. Department of Energy dated July 2, 2007, six of Wall Street’s s then-largest investment banks – Citigroup, Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley – informed the administration that, contrary to the government’s expectations, anything short of a 100 percent unconditional guarantee would be insufficient to induce private lending.

Why is it risky to build nuclear power plants?  Because new nuclear projects tie up more capital for longer periods of time than its main competitor, natural-gas fired generation.  Nuclear power makes economic sense only if natural gas prices are very high.  Then, over time, the high initial costs of nuclear power would be offset by nuclear power’s lower fuel costs.  Moreover, as noted by Moody’s in an analysis published in July of last year, there is uncertainty associated with construction costs, regulatory oversight, technological developments that might reduce the cost of rival facilities, and the ability of utilities to recover costs and make a profit over the lifetime of the plant – a risk tied up in the economic prospects of the region being served by the plant.  And those risks have been increasing, not decreasing, as time has gone on.

In short, even during the go-go days prior to the September 2008 crash – a time when Wall Street was allegedly throwing around money left and right to all sorts of dubious borrowers – the banks that stand accused of recklessly endangering their shareholders on other fronts were telling utility companies that they would not loan them anything for new nuclear power plant construction unless the feds unconditionally guaranteed every last penny of those loans.  That’s how risky market actors think it is to build nuclear power plants.

And it’s not as if the federal government disagrees completely.  The Congressional Budget Office pegs the chance of default (program-wide) at 50 percent or better and the Government Accountability Office likewise thinks that default risks are quite high.  Energy Secretary Stephen Chu says that he thinks the chance of default is much lower.  We can only speculate about who’s right given that no one has tried to build a nuclear power plant in the United States for over 30 years.

Regardless of what the risk actually is, the loan guarantees do not reduce that risk.  They simply transfer the risk from the bank to taxpayer.  In this particular case, however, the loan guarantee transfers risk from one arm of the state to the other, so it doesn’t really count.  But if such loan guarantees  ever were to induce actual private lending for plant construction, that’s how it would work.

Plenty of arguments have been offered to justify these loan guarantees.  Most of them are flimsy on their face.

For instance, we’re often told that we “need” new power plants.  But with electricity demand declining over the past couple of years, it is unclear when that need might arise.

Regardless, when the market “needs” more electricity, that need will be manifested in price signals that will carry with them profit opportunities.  Profit-hungry investors will be willing and able to meet that need without the help of government.  Of course, if market conditions don’t radically change, those needs will be met with gas-fired power plants, but hey, if that bothers you, take it up with someone else.

Others argue that we need the jobs that will be produced by new nuclear power plants.  Well, building big new reactors will certainly employ a lot of (largely unionized) construction workers.  But that’s one reason why building a nuclear power plant is not very economic compared to building gas-fired generators.  If creating jobs is the idea whether the project makes any economic sense or not, then let’s just ban food imports and farm equipment and put everyone to work with hand plows and scythes.

Two somewhat more serious arguments have been offered to justify these loan guarantees.  Neither of them stands up to much scrutiny either.

The first argument – the argument most often heard from the nuclear power industry and some segments of the political Left – is that we need nuclear power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Of course, the best (that is, most efficient) way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to internalize the cost of greenhouse gas emissions in the retail price of electricity and then allow market actors to adjust their production and consumption decisions accordingly.  That price internalization exercise, however (whether directly through a carbon tax or indirectly through a cap-and-trade program), does not appear to be in the cards in the foreseeable future.  Hence, the loan guarantees are advanced as a “second-best” solution, one that will get us the technology and economic efficiency that would be delivered by a properly crafted carbon tax or cap-and-trade program without the retail price increases associated with either.

One of several problems with this argument is that it would take one hell of a carbon tax – or one hell of an onerous cap-and-trade program – to get anyone interested in building nuclear power plants.  If natural gas prices remained roughly where they are at present (that is, if they were to remain at historical norms) then it would take a $90 per ton carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program that delivered carbon emission credits at $90 per ton on the open market to induce investment in nuclear power plants.  Few economists who study climate policy believe that a carbon tax of that size is defensible given what we know about climate change.

And that’s if construction costs are as low as advertised.  Were they to double (as they did from 2003 to 2009) – either because of endogenous increases in the cost of capital, labor, or construction-related resources or because of cost overruns – then it would take at least a $150 per ton carbon tax (or a cap-and-trade program that delivered $150 carbon credits to the market) to induce investment.

You might ask yourself what the historical relationship is between final (inflation-adjusted) nuclear power plant construction costs in the United States and construction costs as projected at the onset of the project.  Happily, the CBO has done your homework for you.  They found that final construction costs averaged 207 percent of projected costs.  Hence, a doubling of construction costs is probably more likely than not once a project is underway … if past is prologue.

The upshot is that there are many more efficient ways to respond to greenhouse gas emission constraints than to go on a nuclear power bender.  This observation is heresy on the Right, but almost every credible analysis of the matter backs up that observation.

The second argument one hears to justify federal loan guarantees is that they are necessary to counter-balance the excessive regulatory costs associated with new plant construction.  Now, put aside the fact that the Nuclear Energy Institute – the trade association of the nuclear power industry – has often expressed near-total satisfaction with the current federal regulatory regime.  If the regulatory regime is truly “bad” and, accordingly, is imposing steep and unnecessary costs on the industry, then the correct remedy is to improve said regulatory regime, not to subsidize the industry.

The counter-complaint that positive regulatory reforms are impossible is difficult to swallow.  After all, if there is sufficient political will to bestow tens of billions of dollars worth of tax money on this industry, then surely there is enough political will to reform the bad and unnecessarily costly regulations allegedly bedeviling the object of those very same legislative affections.

I will confess to being skeptical about the argument that high construction costs are largely the fault of regulators.  Building a light water breeder reactor is a technologically challenging and costly undertaking whether regulators are on the scene or not.  Moreover, it is not obvious to me that the regulations that are in place are a priori objectionable from a libertarian perspective.

One rarely, if ever, hears of particulars in this bill of complaint offered about nuclear regulation.  But if a persuasive bill of complaints is ever presented, then the appropriate response is regulatory reform and then to leave the decision to build or not to build to markets.

In the course of announcing these loan guarantees, President Obama said this week that “The fact is, changing the ways we produce and use energy requires us to think anew. It requires us to act anew.”  Well, there’s nothing new about throwing subsidies at nuclear power.  Economist Douglas Koplow calculates that federal nuclear subsidies have totaled $178 billion from 1947-1999.  The promise of a nuclear economy with rates too cheap to meter has been made for over half a century.  What would be new would be a policy of “just saying no” to industries with their hands out in Washington.

[Cross-posted at MasterResource]

Thursday Links

  • Why the Tea Partiers should not date the GOP: “This movement is simply saying: ‘We are fine without you, Washington. Now for the love of God, go attend a reception somewhere, and stop making health care and entrepreneurship more expensive than they already are.’”
  • A growing disconnect: “A nasty spat has erupted between Washington and Beijing over the Obama administration’s arms sales to Taiwan….The bulk of the evidence suggests that storm clouds are building in the US-China relationship.”