A Couple of Items on the Bank Bailout

Here are a couple of items on the bank bailout that I’ve been meaning to post. First is a post from back in late February (seems like years!) on Megan McArdle’s blog at the Atlantic (whose spiffy redesign I admire, if not the politics of its columnists). It is a response to this post on Paul Krugman’s blog at the New York Times, but it relates to Fred Moseley’s cover article in the March/April issue of D&S. Here’s McAdle’s post in full:


Paul Krugman channels Adam Posen on Japan’s lost decade, and what it means for us:

The guarantees that the US government has already extended to the banks in the last year, and the insufficient (though large) capital injections without government control or adequate conditionality also already given under TARP, closely mimic those given by the Japanese government in the mid-1990s to keep their major banks open without having to recognize specific failures and losses. The result then, and the emerging result now, is that the banks’ top management simply burns through that cash, socializing the losses for the taxpayer, grabbing any rare gains for management payouts or shareholder dividends, and ending up still undercapitalized. Pretending that distressed assets are worth more than they actually are today for regulatory purposes persuades no one besides the regulators, and just gives the banks more taxpayer money to spend down, and more time to impose a credit crunch.

These kind of half-measures to keep banks open rather than disciplined are precisely what the Japanese Ministry of Finance engaged in from their bubble’s burst in 1992 through to 1998 …

Why is the government so reluctant to hand losses to the bondholders? The standard explanation on both far left and far right is that Treasury and the Fed are in the pocket of the banking industry, and Geithner et. al. are simply bailing out their corporate masters. I don’t entirely discount this theory, though I would (and did) put it more nicely: all the information the regulators has comes from the people they are trying to regulate. This naturally biases them towards the regulated. Every time I am tempted to get outraged about this, I think through the alternative: regulators who don’t have much interaction with those they oversee. I’ll take Tim Geithner over Maxine Waters any day of the week, and twice on Sunday.

And in this case, I don’t think that’s the whole, or even the greatest part, of the explanation. Rather, I think their problem is largely political: avoiding the “n” word, yes, but more importantly, avoiding any more crisis injections of capital into the system.

It’s easy to blithely say “Why don’t they just make the bondholders take a haircut?” Harder when you think about who those bondholders are: insurers. pension funds. the bond component of your 401(k). Financial debt makes up something like a third of the bond market, and the largest holders are pensions and insurers.

The insurers are the biggest problem, because they’re just so heavily regulated. They’re not allowed to hold risky assets. Convert their bonds to equity and they will be forced to dump that equity at prices that will trend towards zero. Many insurers will see their capital impaired below the regulatory limits, requiring a government bailout.

Pension funds are the next biggest problem. They’re already in big trouble because of stock market declines. The bonds are the “safe” portion of their portfolio, the stuff that’s supposed ot be akin to ready cash. Convert their bonds to equity–or worse, default–and suddenly they’re illiquid and even further underwater.

Nor is the 401(k) problem small. Bond funds are typically held most heavily by the people closest to retirement; they’re for income, not capital gains. What is your mother going to do when a third of her mutual fund income gets converted to equity that produces no cash and can’t be sold because the insurers have all had to dump their shares on the market at once? Or simply disappears into the land of bankruptcy lawsuits?

There’s also the problem of what it does to the ability of banks to raise capital. Bank bonds are sold on the implicit assumption that the taxpayer, not the lender, will eat capital deficiencies. Changing that understanding risks runs on the bank a la Lehman whenever a financial institution looks the least bit shaky. Banks are inherently highly leveraged institutions even in a good regulatory environment; this might make our banking system much more volatile in the future. It’s somewhat akin to what would happen if we simply announced that the FDIC would stop tomorrow.

I think what Geithner et. al. fear is that nationalizing or reorganization will put the government on the hook for massive and immediate losses in both the banking system, and the “safe” entities that lent it money. I fear they may be right. But I think the lesson of Japan is that we have to do it anyway. I don’t know what form the fix should take. I don’t know how painful the fix will be. But I’m pretty sure any fix that makes us recognize the losses, recapitalize the banks, and move on, will be better than two decades of zombie banks and glacial growth.

I asked Fred Moseley (who, again, wrote our current cover article on bank nationalization) how he would respond to McArdle. Here’s what he wrote back to me:

My main response to McArdle is this: if it is true that the only way to avoid an economic catastrophe is to bail out the banks and their bondholders with taxpayer money, then I would say that this strengthens the case for the nationalization of systematically significant banks. If taxpayers have to pay for their losses this time, then surely we want to make sure that we never have to pay again, that we are never put in this situation again. And the best way to ensure that it never happens again is to nationalize the systemically significant banks. Then we would never again be forced to decide between bailing out the bondholders or economic armageddon.

I was shocked to read: “Bank bonds are sold on the IMPLICIT ASSUMPTION that the taxpayer, not the lender, will eat capital deficiencies.” Really? The bondholders make money on the assumption that taxpayers will eat the losses? What a racket!

In addition, as I argue in my article, there is a third alternative, nationalization with debt-equity swaps (for unsecured senior creditors). And this nationalization should be permanent, pace above, so we never have to face a similar crisis again.

On the difficulties of debt-equity swaps for insurance companies (the “biggest problem”): just declare that insurance companies will be allowed to own THESE equities, and ONLY these equities. The non-equity rule is intended to prohibit insurance companies from making risky investments. Well, it is too late for that; the cows are already out of the barn. The insurance companies have already made these risky investments. The only alternative to allowing the insurance companies to own these equities is for taxpayers to pay for their losses. Allowing the insurance companies to own these equities is clearly the only equitable option.

On pension funds: bank debt is less than 2% of the total assets of pension funds. So a modest loss on bank debt would not be that significant, especially since the values of all the other assets of pension funds are falling too. Plus, the managers of these pension funds made investment decisions for which they, not the taxpayers, should not be
ar the consequences. Maybe the management of these pension funds should be changed.

So in the end McArdle seems to want pseudo-nationalization, without bondholder haircuts and with large taxpayer losses. She wants to make explicit the “implicit assumption” that taxpayers eat the losses. The only way to avoid this is real nationalization, with haircuts for the bondholders.

When Fred says “the only way to avoid this is real nationalization,” he’s including under the rubric of “nationalization” the possibility that the gubm’t could set up “good banks,” and I’m assuming that in that scenario the “too big to fail” banks could be allowed to whither and die (i.e. enter into bankruptcy, and let the good assets be sorted from the bad in court). This is what Joseph Stiglitz seemed to be saying in his presidential address to the Eastern Economics Association meetings a few weeks ago (about which I blogged here; his article in the current issue of The Nation seems to be more of a proposal for pseudo-(i.e., temporary) nationalization, however). Something like a “whither and die” proposal also seems to be Dave Lindorff’s position in a recent piece over at Counterpunch:

The futility and stupidity of the Fed’s and the Obama administration’s policy of pumping ever more money into failing banks and insurance companies in a vain effort to get them lending again was demonstrated—if anyone was paying attention—by the collapse in auto sales this past month, with all the leading companies, Ford, GM and Toyota, reporting sales down by about 40%.

This fall off in car buying was despite record discounting by the auto industry, and offers of 0% financing.

Clearly, obtaining financing is not the reason people are not buying cars.

People are not buying cars because they are worried about having a job to enable them to pay back the loan.

It’s the same reason people aren’t buying houses. It’s not that you cannot get a mortgage. There are plenty of smaller banks that would be happy to lend money to buy a house these days. But who’s going to go out and buy a house in this economy? First of all, to buy a house, unless you are a first-time buyer, you have to sell your current house, but that would mean taking a huge loss. Indeed, one in five homes in America today is technically “underwater”—that is, it is worth less than the outstanding mortgage on the property. Probably another one in five are worth little more than the outstanding mortgage. No one would sell a house under either such circumstance.

The point here is that if people aren’t willing to spend money, then what good is it to give more money to banks and their shareholders, in hopes that they will start lending it? The lending business has two sides—those offering to make a loan, and those wanting to borrow. If there’s no borrower, no amount of money available for lending is going to change the fact that there will be no loans written.

Read the rest of the article.

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