Posts tagged ‘bailouts’

Changing Their Story

I am not shocked that Obama is full of sh*t --  all politicians are.  But I am constantly surprised at just how awful the press has become.

Here was the Arizona Republic towing the government line, attempting to stampede the country into subsidizing the auto companies because bankruptcy would be a disaster:

Advocates for the nation's automakers are warning that the collapse of the Big Three - or even just General Motors - could set off a catastrophic chain reaction in the economy, eliminating up to 3 million jobs and depriving governments of more than $150 billion in tax revenue.

Industry supporters are offering such grim predictions as Congress weighs whether to bail out the nation's largest automakers, which are struggling to survive the steepest economic slide in decades.

Even if just GM collapsed, the failure could bring down the other two companies - and even the U.S. operations of foreign automakers - as parts suppliers run out of money and shut down....

Automakers say bankruptcy protection is not an option because people would be reluctant to make long-term car and truck purchases from companies that might not last the life of their vehicles.

There was absolutely no background on the chapter 11 process, or any mention by this reporter or in any subsequent AZ Republic article that bankrupcy meant anything but liquidation and disaster. Not even a hint that many large companies, including the largest company based in Phoenix -- US Airways -- have operated seamlessly through chapter 11.

It was left to bloggers like myself to remind folks that the businesses and assets don't just go *poof* in a bankruptcy, and in fact it is generally in creditors' interests to have the company continue to operate.

So, now that Chrysler is heading for bankruptcy, Obama's incentives are now to make chapter 11 look friendly instead of menacing.  And the AZ Republic is finally, after 6 months of coverage, explaining what this really means:

Bankruptcy doesn't mean the nation's No. 3 automaker will shut down. A Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing would allow a judge to decide how much the company's creditors would get while the company continues to operate. The goal is for the whole process to happen quickly, Obama said, perhaps within a couple months.

I thought this was priceless:

[Obama] said a group of investment firms and hedge funds were holding out for the prospect of an unjustified taxpayer bailout.

"I don't stand with them," Obama said at the White House event.

I actually don't think this is true -- as secured creditors, they are FIRST in line in a bankruptcy.  Obama has effectively told them to voluntarily move to the back of the line, and they reasonably said "no way."  Obama is miffed that they have not taken his royal direction, but I think they are correct they will get more out of a process run by bankruptcy law rather than one run by political pull.

But, even if hedge funds had this expectation of a taxpayer bailout, who in the hell do you think has given them reason to have this expectation?  Can anyone say "moral hazard?"

Smearing Risk Around Like Peanut Butter

My kids have  a trick that I am sure is not unique to our household.  Faced with some type of food they do not like, they have become quite creative and artistic in spreading the mass of food around their plate, in a (generally) vain attempt to fool mom and dad that some of the food has disappeared.

After reading the scathing WSJ article this morning on the BofA / Merril Lynch deal, one has to wonder whether the feds were attempting the same trick with risk.

Like Welch, I welcome the WSJ as late arrivers to the bailout-skeptics party.

(Temporary) Respite for Wal-Mart and Exxon

I wonder if the board rooms of Wal-Mart and ExxonMobil are enjoying their probably temporary respite from being first to be set on by the pitchforks.  At least for now, I think the public has decided that there are worse things than companies that reliably provide essential products and services for single-digit margins and without taxpayer bailout money .

The Dead Hand's Apprentice

Via the WSJ

The Treasury Department has decided to extend bailout funds to a number of struggling life-insurance companies, helping an industry that is a linchpin of the U.S. financial system, people familiar with the matter said.

The department is expected to announce the expansion of the Troubled Asset Relief Program to aid the ailing industry within the next several days, these people said.

Seriously, how far does this go?  Does anyone else picture scores of brooms with pales of water exiting the Treasury building?  It's like one of those farces where each new action to fix a crisis creates a new crisis that is even larger.

Liquidity or Insolvency?

This is an update to these two posts on the Geithner toxic asset / bank bailout plan.  In those posts, we looked at a hypothetical investment with a 50/50 chance of being worth 0 or 200.  From this, we said that the expected value was 100, and looked at payout scenarios under the Geithner plan.

A number of folks wrote me that I had missed part of the point of the Geithner plan.  The original assumption of the plan was that the banking system is in a liquidity crisis, and fire sales of assets are reducing the pricing of such assets well below their expected hold-to-maturity value.  According to the Treasury white paper:

Troubled real estate-related assets, comprised of legacy loans and securities, are at the center of the problems currently impacting the U.S. financial system...The resulting need to reduce risk triggered a wide-scale deleveraging in these markets and led to fire sales. While fundamentals have surely deteriorated over the past 18-24 months, there is evidence that current prices for some legacy assets embed substantial liquidity discounts...This program should facilitate price discovery and should help, over time, to reduce the excessive liquidity discounts embedded in current legacy asset prices.

Their point is, in our example, that the asset worth 100 is only trading at, say, 50 due to a liquidity discount and the point of the plan is to make this discount go away.

This does make it clearer to me how these guys are justifying this program.   If we look at the program on the original analysis, based on expected values of assets held to maturity, we got this profile of returns:


The bank returns in the analysis were based on the alternative of hold to maturity.  It is all a zero-sum game - gains at the banks and investors come directly out the the taxpayer's pocket.

If, however, one assumes the asset is trading below expected value, say at 50, due to a liquidity discount, then Geithner can argue the banks get a higher return for the same taxpayer subsidy IF the returns are based on a base case of selling out at the fire-sale market price.


In this case, with these assumptions, we get some "free value" or a multiplier effect of the taxpayer subsidy equal to the liquidity discount.

Is this a valid way of looking at it?  Well, the first problem is that this seems like an awful lot of money to spend of taxpayer money just to eliminate a fleeting (in the grand scheme of things) liquidity discount.  Banks have a zero-subsidy alternative to achieving the same end, which is simply to hold the investments to maturity, or until the market eliminates the liquidity discount.  Those of you who own a home know that you are going to take a hit on value if you have to sell now, while the market is a flooded with homes for sale, vs. two or three years from now.  Anybody proposed lately to bail ordinary folks out of this liquidity discount?

But perhaps the more telling criticism of Geithner's assumptions come from a recent paper by a group of Harvard Business School and Princeton professors who have looked at the current market pricing of these toxic assets, and have found little or no liquidity discount.

"The analysis of this paper suggests that recent credit market prices are actually highly consistent with fundamentals. A structural framework confirms that bonds and credit derivatives should have experienced a significant repricing in 2008 as the economic outlook darkened and volatility increased. The analysis also confirms that severe mispricing existed in the structured credit tranches prior to the crisis and that a large part of the dramatic rise in spreads has been the elimination of this mispricing."

Three conclusions are drawn:

  • Many banks are now insolvent. "...many major US banks are now legitimately insolvent. This insolvency can no longer be viewed as an artifact of bank assets being marked to artificially depressed prices coming out of an illiquid market. It means that bank assets are being fairly priced at valuations that sum to less than bank liabilities."
  • Supporting markets in toxic assets has no purpose other than transfering money from taxpayers to banks. "...any taxpayer dollars allocated to supporting these markets will simply transfer wealth to the current owners of these securities."
  • We're making it worse. "...policies that attempt to prevent a widespread mark-down in the value of credit-sensitive assets are likely to only delay "“ and perhaps even worsen "“ the day of reckoning."

Update: Critics of the study argue the authors only looked at the most liquid portions of the toxic asset portfolios, thus missing the problem they claim to be studying.  From this brief critique, they seem to have a point.

Michael Rozeff looks at the paper's findings in the context of Austrian economics, and concludes that in fact, Geithner and company are delaying a recovery in lending, as bankers are frozen in a game of chicken, hoping to make things bad enough to attract government subsidies without making them so bad the institution fails before subsidies arrive.

By contrast, the Austrians, as well as other financial analysts, have argued from the outset that the basic problem is not liquidity of the financial system. The argument on the Austrian side is that the banks and other financial institutions have not been in trouble because there is not enough liquidity to buy their loans. They are in trouble because they made bad loans that are worth far less than their values as carried on the banks' books. The banks are often insolvent. Furthermore, these banks do not want to and refuse to sell these loans at the low values to get the liquid funds they want. They are playing politics. They are getting a better deal (a) by shifting some of these loans to the FED in return for Treasury securities, and (b) getting bailed out by taxpayer funds.

In the Austrian interpretation, the banks have waited while the government came up with various devices to bail them out with other people's money. The latest is the Geithner PPIP that uses an FDIC guarantee to private parties to buy the bank loans at prices above market value. In the same vein, the accounting regulatory authority known as FASB has just allowed the banks leeway not to carry these bad loans at their market value by voiding the mark-to-market rule.

Who Could Have Predicted This?

Kevin Drum quotes the Financial Times:

US banks that have received government aid, including Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase, are considering buying toxic assets to be sold by rivals under the Treasury's $1,000bn (£680bn) plan to revive the financial system.

....Wall Street executives argue that banks' asset purchases would help achieve the second main goal of the plan: to establish prices and kick-start the market for illiquid assets.  But public opinion may not tolerate the idea of banks selling each other their bad assets. Critics say that would leave the same amount of toxic assets in the system as before, but with the government now liable for most of the losses through its provision of non-recourse loans.

Wow, no one could have predicted this.  Except for anyone who spent 5 minutes with the numbers:

There is an interesting incentive to collude [in the Geithner plan] between banks and investors.  The best outcome for both is for investors to pay a high price to banks and then have the bank kick back some portion to the investor.

I will confess that I did not take the next logical step and consider that the ultimate collusion would be for banks themselves to be the investors, but the incentives for doing so were dead clear (part 1, part 2).

I will stick by my original conclusion -- Taxpayers are hosed at any price.

By the way, can anyone tell me what the evidence has been for the contention Barack Obama is "really smart," because I sure don't see it.  Yeah, he went to an Ivy League School, but so did I and there were plenty of people there I wouldn't trust to run a lemonade stand.  Sure, he gives a nice prepared speech and seems to have invested in that vocabulary building course Rush Limbaugh used to peddle on his show, but what else?  All I see is a typical Ivy League denizen of some NGO who thinks he/she can change the world if only someone will listen to them, who just comes off as puerile if you really spend any time with them.  I will go back to what I wrote on inauguration day:

Folks are excited about Obama because, in essence, they don't know what he stands for, and thus can read into him anything they want.  Not since the breathless coverage of Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone's vault has there been so much attention to something where we had no idea of what was inside.  My bet is that the result with Obama will be the same as with the vault.

Hosed At Any Price -- An Update on Geithner Plan Analysis

I had someone ask me whether the results in this post on the economics of Geithner's latest brainstorm were an artifact of the selected purchase price for the distressed asset of 150.  The answer is no.  Investors are willing to buy this asset on these terms at any price under 175, and banks are willing to sell for any price over 100.  Here is the graph of expected values as a function of the purchase price


Note the taxpayer gets hosed at any price  (kind of the Obama-Geithner update on "unsafe at any speed")  Two things I had not realized before:

  • Without competition among investors to drive up the price, a very large percentage of the taxpayer subsidy goes to the investors rather than the banks.
  • There is an interesting incentive to collude here between banks and investors.  The best outcome for both is for investors to pay a high price to banks and then have the bank kick back some portion to the investor.

Privitizing Gains, Socializing Losses

Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz has a great deconstruction of the Geithner toxic asset plan in the NY Times.  If you want to see how the new corporate state works, where the government works with a small group of powerful insiders to the benefit of those insiders and the detriment of everyone else, this is a great example.

Stiglitz walks through how the Geithner plan will operate, and I want to do so as well.  I have added a few tables to help illustrate his example a bit better.

Let's begin with a financial asset that was originally worth $200.    To make things simpler, we'll assume that with the current economy there are now two outcomes for this asset -- a 50% chance it recovers and eventually pays off its full value of $200, and a 50% chance it becomes effectively worthless  (more realistically, there is a range of outcomes, but this does not really effect the following analysis).

The average "value" of the asset is $100. Ignoring interest, this is what the asset would sell for in a competitive market. It is what the asset is "worth."

This is a classic expected value analysis.  At business school, you spend a lot of your time doing these (trust me).  Expected value is just the percentage chance of each outcome times the value of the outcome, on in this case 50% x $0 + 50% x $200 = $100.

So Stiglitz hypothesizes a situation under the new Geithner plan where a private entity might be willing to pay $150 for this $100 asset.  That's certainly a windfall for the financial institution that owns the asset currently, since the asset is only worth $100 on the open market.  But why would someone pay $150?  Well, it starts with this:

Under the plan by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, the government would provide about 92 percent of the money to buy the asset but would stand to receive only 50 percent of any gains, and would absorb almost all of the losses

The actual percentages are 8% from the private purchasers, 8% "equity" from the government, and 84% in a government-guaranteed loan  (Equity is in scare quotes because most investors learned long ago that if you provide 80%+ of the capital in a risky venture, you can call the investment "debt" all day long but what you have really done is made an equity investment).

So let's look at how the purchase cost is divvied up based based on a $150 purchase cost:

Taxpayer $138
Investor $12
Total $150

But we have already posited how this will come out:  a 50/50 chance of $0 and $200 for the final asset value.  So we can compute the outcomes.

50% Chance Investment = $0 50% Chance Investment = $200 Expected Value
Taxpayer -138 +25 -56.5
Investor -12 +25 +6.5
Bank +150 -50 +50

So there is a huge built-in subsidy here.   Now, I don't personally think the government needs to be injecting equity in banks.  But  I understand there are a lot of people who support it.  So perhaps the $50 subsidy of the banks in the above example is warranted.  But why the $6.5 subsidy of Geithner's old pals in the investment world?  This is a pure windfall for them, like finding money laying on the street.   Even Vegas does not tip the odds so far in favor of the house.

I agree with Stiglitz's analysis:

What the Obama administration is doing is far worse than nationalization: it is ersatz capitalism, the privatizing of gains and the socializing of losses. It is a "partnership" in which one partner robs the other. And such partnerships "” with the private sector in control "” have perverse incentives, worse even than the ones that got us into the mess.

So what is the appeal of a proposal like this? Perhaps it's the kind of Rube Goldberg device that Wall Street loves "” clever, complex and nontransparent, allowing huge transfers of wealth to the financial markets. It has allowed the administration to avoid going back to Congress to ask for the money needed to fix our banks, and it provided a way to avoid nationalization.

Update: I posted an update on the plan and these numbers here.

Only 3-1/2 More Years Until We Go To The Polls To Select A New GM CEO

Russel Roberts deconstructs Obama's auto speech.  Well worth the read.

I have worked with folks in the government for years.  One of the common syndromes I see in government officials of all levels is something I call "arrogant ignorance."  I see a lot of it in this administration.

An Enormous Blunder

It is becoming increasingly clear that Obama has made an enormous blunder, driven in part by his best-and-the-brightest-style hubris, in taking personal ownership of GM.  Not because it will be an enormous waste of taxpayer money, because I don't think he cares about a few tens of billions of our money.  It is a blunder because GM may not be fixable, and if it is salvageable in some smaller format, it will require painful compromises by politically powerful groups Obama really does not want to square off with.

Obama's stepping forward and claiming ownership for GM's success strikes me as roughly equivalent to someone stepping forward in March of 1945 to take ownership of the German war effort.   The decision is all the dumber because there was a perfectly good alternative -- ie the bankrupcy courts -- with far more experience (not to mention authority and legislative mandate) to handle these type of situations.

Megan McArdle has a good roundup of what challenges face GM and the Obamacrats.

Update: Obama seems to be hinting that a bankruptcy may still be in the cards.  The key challenge for him will be to deal with the obvious accusation of why he didn't allow this before spending $20 billion or so of taxpayer money.  Expect the administration to be focus-grouping and trial-ballooning various euphamisms for chapter 11 to disguise this problem.

And This Is Better, How?

Critics of high executive pay on the soft-core / moderate left (as opposed to the hard-core socialist left) often argue that they are not against large incomes per se.  However, they argue that high executive pay is often the result of a failure in the structure of corporate governance, where a group of cozy insiders on the board and management hand each other compensation packages to which the rank and file of shareholders would be opposed  (a subset of the agency cost problem).

I am somewhat sympathetic to this argument, as I have personally observed instances where I thought boards and management were too cozy by far.  However, no one has really succeeded at proving this hypothesis on executive pay, and in fact shareholders when they have had a chance to vote on such packages have never really made a meaningful dent in them, and one can find a number of private companies where such governance issues presumably don't exist but high executive compensation packages can exist.

Just as an aside, a classic example of this can be found in the fabulous book "Barbarians at the Gate" about the RJR Nabisco takeover fight.  The book does a great job of portraying a company with horrible corporate governance issues that seemed to be used to enrich managers with both salaries and perks, but then observed that the new private owners of the company gave their new CEO a compensation package that might have made the previous executives blush.

Anyway, I am yet again off the point.  My point was to observe that the mainstream left seems to believe that there are corporate governance issues at large corporations that disenfranchise the majority of shareholders vis a vis key decisions involving the company executives.  So I have to ask myself, if this is a real fear, then how does one justify having the President of the United States effectively fire the GM CEO, without any vote or substantial input from shareholders?

Postscript: It is all well and good to be cognizant of agency costs.  Everyone should understand when an employee (or contractor or whatever) has different incentives than they themselves possess.  For example, on my recent backyard renovation, I always kept in mind that my architect wanted to create a showplace that would advance his business and possible get into a magazine.  In general, this alligns our interests, but there were times he pressed for things I did not value and I had to be insistent we were not going to do those things.

However, many folks seem to want to run off to government to do something about agency costs whenever or wherever they are found.  This is hugely dangerous, as Congress tends to have the highest agency costs one will ever be likely to find.

A Trillion Dollars? No Problem

The answer to all of Obama's spending in trillion dollar chunks is obvious.  All we have to do is make our currency work just like that of Zimbabwe, and we will be fine.  We could pay off a trillion dollars with 10 bank notes (I bought just one the other day on eBay for $30 or so).

The problem, of course, is that this is what the Obama administration actually appears to be doing.

Dude, The Market Figured That Out 6 Months Ago Before You Started Shoveling My Money At Them

After giving tens of billions of dollars of our money to the auto makers, Obama has now figured out what I and many others knew years ago:

Obama, responding to a question during an online town hall meeting, said the current business model for U.S. carmakers was unsustainable and the Big Three would need to change their ways.

From the article, however, it is still clear that Obama has no intention of allowing GM to go into chapter 11, as they should have 6 months ago.   There is a good political reason for this -- remember what I explained before.   Obama is working to equate chapter 11 with the disappearance of the American auto industry, clearly an untrue and facile proposition.  Many large companies, from airlines to energy companies to equipment manufacturers, have gone bankrupt over the last several decades and continued operations or at least had their productive assets taken over by other companies.  GM's assets are not just going to go poof.

However, there is a clear set of winners and losers in a bankruptcy -- and there is enough case law on it that all the players at GM know it and they know into which category they fall.  Those who are lower down the food chain are hoping that putting the restructuring in Obama's hands rather than those of the bankruptcy process will improve their outcomes.  And, to get those higher on the food chain (ie senior debt holders) to accept this they need the government to bring taxpayer money to the table.  The whole point of an Obama-led restructuring, then, is not to somehow preserve the US auto industry but to improve the financial position of certain GM stakeholders at the expense of US taxpayers  (and probably consumers, and some sort of protectionism is likely to be part of this deal).

But here is the most interesting point that was really hammered into me in reading this article.  If you were to rank Obama as to where he stood vis a vis all American adults in terms of his knowledge of business and what it takes for a company to be successful, where would you rank him?  I don't think very many would put him in the top half.  In fact, given that he has never, to my knowledge, had any real job in business of any sort (not even a high school job at McDonald's or something similar), I am not sure I would put him above the 10th percentile.  Anyway, put your own number to this question, and then read these quotes from the linked article

The president said he planned to announce decisions on the future of the industry in the coming days.

"But my job is to measure the costs of allowing these auto companies just to collapse versus us figuring out - can they come up with a viable plan?" he said.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama will announce his strategy for the auto industry before he leaves for Europe on Tuesday.

Seriously, would you hand over your business or your stock portfolio for Obama to manage?  I didn't think so.  It takes years of experience to be able to read a business plan skeptically.  And even people who are experienced at it fail a lot.

By the way, for those who suspect that decisions will not be based on actual market realities but satisfaction of pet political goals, you are probably correct:

The president said even as the economy bounces back, Detroit can't focus on "trying to build more and more SUVs and counting on gas prices being low."...

Gibbs said Obama still thinks U.S. automakers build cars that Americans want to buy. Both he and the president own Ford Escape hybrids. "It's a nice car," Gibbs said. "It really is."

So, for example, one can assume its likely the Obama strategy for GM success will include lots of hybrids.  Of course, the market reality is this:

the slowdown has been particularly brutal for hybrids, which use electricity and gasoline as power sources. They were the industry's darling just last summer,  but sales have collapsed as consumers refuse to pay a premium for a fuel-efficient vehicle now that the average price of a gallon of gasoline nationally has slipped below $2.

"When gas prices came down, the priority of buying a hybrid fell off quite quickly," said Wes Brown, a partner at Los Angeles-based market research firm Iceology.

I personally believe that a meer restructuring of GM is unlikely to create a turnaround, as I discussed here.

Postscript- It is a bit apples and oranges for me to say that Obama is evaluating business plans here.  In fact, he is not.  Though he calls them that, if the Chrysler retructuring plan they put on the web is any guide, these are political plans, not business plans.  No real business plan, for example, seeking to attract private capital would prioritize the goals "Commitment to Energy Security and Environmental Sustainability", "Compliance with Fuel Economy Regulations," and "Compliance with Emissions Regulations" ahead of "Achieving a Competitive Product Mix and Cost Structure."  In fact, the section about costs and competitive products comes dead last in the Chrysler plan, almost as an afterthought.

Update: This sad story about athletes and their difficulty in managing their money seems relevent.  These guys, who have spent their whole life getting really good at one thing, don't even have the basic financial vocabulary to understand money management, and absolutely no ability to parse a business plan:

It began in the winter of 1991 when he sank $300,000 into the Rock N' Roll Café, a theme restaurant in New England designed to ride the wave of the Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood franchises. One of his advisers pitched the idea as "fail-proof, with no downsides," Ismail recalls. He never recouped his money and has no idea what became of the restaurant.

Lesson learned? If only. After that Ismail squandered a fortune funding not only that inspirational movie but also the music label COZ Records ("The guy was a real good talker," says Rocket); a cosmetics procedure whereby oxygen was absorbed into the skin ("We were not prepared for the sharks in the beauty industry"); a plan to create nationwide phone-card dispensers ("When I was in college, phone cards were a big deal"); and, recently, three shops dubbed It's in the Name, where tourists could buy framed calligraphy of names or proverbs of their choice ("The main store opened up in New Orleans, but doggone Hurricane Katrina came two months later"). The shops no longer exist.

You might say Ismail had a run of terrible luck, but the odds were never close to being in his favor. Industry experts estimate that only one in 30 of the highest-caliber private investment deals works out as advertised. "Chronic overallocation into real estate and bad private equity is the Number 1 problem [for athletes] in terms of a financial meltdown," Butowsky says. "And I've never seen more people come to me about raising money for those kinds of deals than athletes."

Doesn't this sound like the current administration in microcosm?  Does Obama have any better chance with his GM investment?

Haiti on the Potomac

The Liberty Papers thinks we have become a lawless Banana Republic.  George Will is thinking along the same lines, snarkily observing that Sweden, China, and Mexico have all observed in one way or another that the Feds seem to be acting outside the rule of law.

I have opined in the past that what really extended the Great Depression was not any real underlying economic issue, or even vast increases in government spending per se.  It was that arbitrariness with which the Roosevelt administration dealt with economic matters.  With nutty programs like the Mussolini-inspired National Industrial Recovery Act coming and going, investors and businesses never knew from day to day what the rules of the game would be next year, or even next week.

I fear that this is exactly the climate Obama and Congress are creating today.

  • When Congress reacts to CNN headlines by retroactively confiscating legal compensation that it had protected just weeks before, what will happen to my compensation?
  • When government deficits soar by trillions of dollars, what will taxes look like next year?
  • When the Administration says that Co2 will have to be reduced by 80%, what numbers do I plug into my forecasts for fuel and electricity?
  • When the government decides on a whim to print a trillion dollars more money to pay off government debt, what will inflation look like in the coming months and years?

As of two months ago, my company was still investing.  We were still getting bank credit, particularly for equipment financing, though it took more work than in the past to secure it.  We still saw opportunity in our business, and in fact saw increased opportunity in the recession for low-cost recreation options and outsourcing of public recreation facilities.

But today, I am reluctant to make any new investments.  Investing $5000 now for $8,000 a year from now normally sounds good, but what happens now that the Feds have more than doubled the money supply?  How much will $8,000 really be worth a year from now?  What will my taxes be on the increase?**  What new costs or liabilities  might be retroactively placed on me for making the investment?  What happens if beltway pundits start thinking I am making too much money?

All this commotion of government intervention started when Paulson and other Bush appointees started screaming that the banking system was going to shut down and therefore crash the whole economy.  As my readers know, I believe to this day that this was all sky-is-falling over-reaction and panic-mongering, and most of the credit crunch resulted from uncertainty about the Treasury and its statements, not due to realities on the ground.   However, whatever tightening of credit we might or might not have avoided by government action, it pales in its effect on investment in comparison to the arbitrariness and trillion-dollar-plan-of-the-day that has been the first 60 days of the Obama administration.

** footnote: For those of you who have not lived through high inflation times, taxes and inflation are a deadly combination.  That is because the Federal Government, after creating inflation, then taxes each of us on its effects.  Here is an example:  Invest $5000 now at a fixed 10% a year.  Suddenly, inflation goes up to 8% a year.  In five years, I now have a bit over $8000.  In economic terms I have made a small profit of, since $8000 in five years at 8% inflation is worth $5,445 today.

But the IRS thinks I have made $3000, not just $445, and will tax me on the full $3000.  If they take a third, I only have $7000 at the end, or $4,764 in current dollars, meaning that after taxes, I actually lost money.

Maybe Mark Sanford Was On To Something

As has been the case for decades (the gun-to-the-head federal strategy to force 55 mph speed limits and seat belt laws come to mind), the feds are sending money to the states with many strings attached.  Apparently, Arizona is running afoul of one of those provisions:

Arizona's receipt of $1.6 billion in stimulus funding, including more than $300 million already being spent to help keep the state in the black, is at risk because a federal agency says the state is not in compliance with a prohibition against health-care rollbacks.

Arizona could lose the money if the federal determination stands or if state law isn't changed to eliminate a health-care requalification provision that was the basis of the determination, state officials said Monday.

According to Brewer's letter, the agency determined that the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System's requirement that some enrollees requalify every six months instead of annually violated a stimulus-program prohibition against tightened eligibility standards, methodologies or procedures for a state's Medicaid program.

There is something supremely irritating about Federal bailouts to states that are tied to restrictions that make it more difficult for states to close their budget shortfalls on their own.  It's almost as if Congress wants to institutionalize dependency on the Feds  (where have we seen that before?)

Apparently, in the spirit of the retroactive tax-taking of the AIG deferred compensation payments, the restrictions are retroactive to state actions taken as early as July 1, 2008, meaning that Obama is asking states to roll back legislation that was passed months before he was even elected as a condition of getting the cash.

The actions causing problems for Arizona occurred in September, 2008, and were, according to our governor, the result of legislation passed in June of 2008.

Follow the Money

via Paul Kedrosky (click to enlarge)

I guess the disputed $175 million in deferred compensation payments should be on here as well, though the line would be too infinitesimally thin to draw.   The CDS stuff gets the attention, but the securities guarantees are the largest flow.  Are these guarantees of traded securities, like bonds and equities?  If so, it sure is a happy notion for all of us taxpayers with portfolios that are well under water that we are going to send some of our money to help bail out the losses in the Goldman Sachs portfolio.

Wrapped in the Flag of "Systemic Risk"

A couple of questions about AIG:

1.  Is there any real legal difference between the contractual commitment by AIG to pay bonuses to employees and their contractual commitment to pay off mortgage bond guarantees to companies like Goldman Sachs? **

2.  In a bankruptcy, how senior would contractual promises of deferred compensation to employees be?  Everyone comes after the government, of course, but would such claims be more or less senior to, say, commitments to pay counter-parties?

** before claiming one commitment was outrageous and unjustified, one needs to be clear which commitment he is referring to, since both commitments in retrospect seem crazy to me.  It is just that one party (ie Goldman Sachs), which has the added advantage of being represented by many of its former employees in the Treasury department, has convinced Congress and the Administration that not paying them carries systemic risk to the economy.

That seems to be the new key to government largess:  Carrying systemic risk.  It used to be one wanted to be poor or female or black to merit special consideration in the government spending sweepstakes.  But nowadays, in our post-racial society, the key is to be the one who can wrap himself in the flag of "systemic risk."  Here is .

LOL, Best Line I Have Read This Week

Referring the Senator Grassley's statement that AIG executives who are receiving bonuses should "resign or go commit suicide," David Harsanyi responds:

C'mon. If suicide were a proper penalty for piddling away taxpayer dollars, the National Mall would look just like Jonestown after refreshments.

The Earmarked Bankruptcy

The normal process for bureaucratic allocation of, say, highway funds, does not always work that well.  Seriously, you don't have to convince this libertarian of that.  But it is at least intended to try to balance priorities and allocate the funds marginally rationally.   Which points out the problem with earmarks -- they are overrides by Congress of the normal allocation and prioritization process for political ends.  By definition, the projects in earmarks would not have normally been funded by the usual operation of the prioritization process.

Which brings me, oddly enough, to AIG  (and to GM).  When companies can no longer meet all of their obligations, they generally file for chapter 11 bankruptcy. This is an extremely well-worn process, both in the courts and the business community, that attempts to save as much value as possible and to allocate that value, based on law and a set of rules everyone understands in advance, to the various stakeholders.   The folks who are involved in this process are pretty hard-headed folks, less out for revenge and retribution as for maintaining value and capturing as much as possible for whatever group one might represent.

Now Congress and the Administration are getting themselves involved in the bankruptcy process, by trying to avert actual chapter 11 filings by AIG and GM.  By doing so, they are effectively overriding the bankruptcy process.  Just as with earmarking, they claim this override is for some good of the country.  But, just as with earmarking, you can assume it is to benefit some politically-favored group.  At GM, the feds are saying that we don't want employees or the equity holders to take a haircut, as they would in Chapter 11, so we will transfer the loss to taxpayers, and perhaps bondholders (could there be any politically less favored group than taxpayers?).  Same at AIG.   Is it any surprise that the number one beneficiary of the Pauslon bailout of AIG was Goldman Sachs?  The Left thought they smelled a rat when the administrations contracted with ex-Cheney-run Haliburton in Iraq, but no one is going to bat an eye when the Treasury department, populated with ex-Wall Street types, is bailing out all its employees' old firms?

On the subject de jour, the AIG executive bonuses, many of these were just as guaranteed, contractually, as were payments on AIG policies and bond guarantees.  I don't know how such obligations are treated in chapter 11 (are they treated as more or less senior than other obligations?) but I do know the decision to keep them or ditch them would be made against a goal of maintaining long-term value, and not public witch-hunting.

This is the real problem, even beyond the taxpayer cost, of this new form of Congressional or Administration-led pseudo-bankruptcy:  Winners and losers are determined by political power and perceptions of short-term political gain, rather than against a goal of maintaining value and following well understood and predictable rule.  This process throws all the old predictable rules and traditions out the window.  Investors and folks with contracts used to know just how senior their obligations were in a corporate failure.  Now, they have no idea, as their position in the bankruptcy may in the future depend more on how much they donated in the last presidential election, or how good their PR agent is.

Affordable Housing

Thomas Sowell, via Carpe Diem:

The current political stampede to stop mortgage foreclosures proceeds as if foreclosures are just something that strikes people like a bolt of lightning from the blue-- and as if the people facing foreclosures are the only people that matter.
What if the foreclosures are not stopped? Will millions of homes just sit empty? Or will new people move into those homes, now selling for lower prices-- prices perhaps more within the means of the new occupants?

The same politicians who have been talking about a need for "affordable housing" for years are now suddenly alarmed that home prices are falling. How can housing become more affordable unless prices fall?

The political meaning of "affordable housing" is housing that is made more affordable by politicians intervening to create government subsidies, rent control or other gimmicks for which politicians can take credit. Affordable housing produced by market forces provides no benefit to politicians and has no attraction for them.

In the wake of the housing debacle in California, more people are buying less expensive homes, making bigger down payments, and staying away from "creative" and risky financing (see chart above). It is amazing how fast people learn when they are not insulated from the consequences of their decisions.

Mark Perry has a graph showing fully twice as many homes were sold in California in January of 2009 than in January of 2008.

Government Hypocrisy

Tigerhawk asks:

If the CEOs of banks that take federal money, including those who took federal money only after Hank Paulsen essentially ordered them, have their salary capped at $500,000, under what principle do we allow universities that request federal funding to pay their own presidents much more money? Is there a rational basis for the distinction, or is it simply that the Democrats do not want to go after one of their most important constituents?

Forget about the university presidents, what about the football coaches?  One Hundred Billion dollar banks can't pay their CEO's or deal-makers more than $500,000, but state-run football programs can pay their coaches $ 4 million dollars?

It's Time To Discuss Subchapter S, In Relation to Obama's Income Tax Proposals

Once upon a time, most entrepreneurs organized their business as what is called a C-Corporation.  Most of the publicly traded corporations you can think of, from Avon to Zenith, are essentially C-Corporations.   Such corporations had any number of advantages, but they had (and still have) one big, big disadvantage.  C-Corporations paid federal income taxes at the corporate tax rates.  And then, if after-tax profits were dividended to owners, those dividends would be taxed again.  This double taxation of earnings is something Congress talks about all the time, but never does much about.  And the implicit government tax subsidy for debt over equity does a lot to explain various waves of merger and LBO activity we have seen since the 1980's.

Now, entrepreneurs were not stupid.  No one wants their hard-earned income taxed twice.   So, entrepreneurs who owned C-corps would do one of two things.  One approach was to have the owner pay himself a large salary, thus reducing corporate income and converting the dividends to more tax-advantaged wages.  The other approach was to have the company issue the owner loans rather than dividends.  I have seen many closely-held C-corps with huge accumulated corporate loans to their owners, which may only be unwound years or decades later when the company is sold or liquidated and profits can be taken out a lower capital gains rates.

Over the last 20 years or so, a new corporate vehicle called the sub-chapter S or S-corp has become popular.  With a few limitations, the S-corp offers all the same liability protections as a C-corp, with a big tax advantage:  S-corps are not subject to corporate taxes -- corporate profits of the owners flow straight through the corporation to the owners' 1040 personal returns, eliminating any double taxation  (Limited Liability Corps or LLC's operate roughly the same, but with slightly different rules).  For this reason they are also sometimes called pass-through entities.

It is interesting to note something I never hear mentioned when discussing aggregate personal income data, which is that the switch over time from entrepreneurs using the C-corp to the S-corp creates something of a discontinuity in the income data.  Thirty years ago, much of the annual corporate earnings, and all of the retained earnings, of business owners would not show up in the IRS personal income data  -- it shows up as corporate income, but not personal income.  Today, nearly all of that corporate income of small business owners shows up as regular income on personal tax returns.  Absent any other changes in income trends, business owners as a group will appear to have large increases in taxable income, when in fact economically nothing may have changed save the corporate structures of their businesses.

But the real point I want to make is that all of the retained income and potential investment capital of a small business using S-corps or LLCs (which is nearly everyone nowadays)  shows up on the owner's personal income tax returns.  Let's hypothesize an entrepreneur whose S-corp earns $250,000 in profits after-tax.  Let's say he typically puts $150,000 of that to savings and living expenses, and the other $100,000 is reinvested in the growth and/or productivity of the business.  Now let's look at proposed increases in upper income tax brackets.  With these higher proposed rates, the business owner will have less than $250,000 in after tax income.  Let's say it goes down to $220,000.  Odds are that the owner will retain his lifestyle (he will as a minimum still have the same size mortgage and school and other payments).  The slack, then, comes out of the retained earnings.  Essentially, higher taxes result in less investment capital.  In fact, we can see an increased tax rate on wealthier entrepreneurs and business owners could easily result in a dollar for dollar reduction in business investment among small businesses, acknowledged to be the place where most all new jobs are created.

I think readers know that I don't fully accept the Obama administration's analysis of this recession.  However, let's take them at face value for a moment.  They are concerned that savings of average people won't currently translate into more business investment, as they fear the credit crisis causes banks to hold the savings rather than re-lend it.  If this were the case, then it would mean that as a policy, we would want to preferentially route tax savings to entrepreneurs and business owners who invest their own money directly, because their is no intermediary of a bank to interfere with the process.  But in fact, this is exactly opposite of what the Obama administration is doing through tax policy, instead taking away the investment capital and retained earnings of entrepreneurs through higher taxes.

This is the European-style corporate state in a nutshell.  In Europe, entrepreneurship is made extraordinarily difficult.  This is part of the deal that the political elite have with the largest companies in their countries -- we will protect you from potential new competitors, we will bail you out when times get tough, and you in turn will support us politicians.  One only has to look at the turnover of the top 30 companies in the US since 1970 vs. the top 30 in Germany or France to see this at work.  Political turnover is even slower, as an elite group of ministers run the country, almost no matter the party voted in office.  The economy as a whole suffers, but for the top 1000 or so men in power, the system works to protect their position, be it in government or in the largest industries.

And now we bring this system to the US.  Small business owners and entrepreneurs are punished with higher taxes in order to bail out politically powerful but failing companies like GM or Citicorp.  Welcome to America, the new corporate state.

Postscript: A lot of folks erroneously associate corporate states with right-wing governments, and certainly that was the case in Mussolini's Italy.  But the closest brush the US has ever had with such a system (prior to today) was implemented by leftish FDR via the National Industrial Recovery Act, and governments of both left and right have supported the corporate state approach of France and Germany.  In Britain, it was the left that built the corporate state and the right, under Thatcher, who tore it down.

GM and Chapter 11

Remember that time, after the Enron bankruptcy, when gas trading and transportation came to a halt in the US?  Or when air transportation ground to halt after Frontier, ATA, Aloha, Delta, Northwest, United, and US Airways all filed for bankruptcy in a 3 year period?  Or when half of California lost power when PG&E went bankrupt?  Or when car production came to a halt when parts supplier Delphi went into Chapter 11?

Yeah, neither do I.  That's because we have a system, that works pretty well and is certainly well-rehearsed, for corporate bankruptcies.  And the number 1 design consideration of this system, the most important assumption behind the whole process, is that creditors will ultimately get more value if the company continues to operate.

GM has painted a picture that the US automotive industry will come to an end if they have to declare bankruptcy.  This is complete BS.  As I wrote the other day, this is an effort by management and certain other constituencies (labor, equity holders) to get the government to intervene not because it is better for the country or the industry, but because it promises to advance their interests at the ultimate expense of taxpayers and bondholders.  This is a power play.  Holders of the senior debt have the power and call the tune in Chapter 11.  If management can get Obama and Congress to substitute themselves for a Chapter 11 judge, then management can hold onto their power.

I feel like the press has done little to call BS on this whole argument, and has generally supported the auto company narrative  (don't discount the fact that auto dealers are the #1 advertisers, by far, in local TV stations and newspapers).  But I was happy to see this in the WSJ, via Carpe Diem:

GM continues to argue that it couldn't survive a Chapter 11 proceeding, but the truth is that bankruptcy could boost its ability to survive. As the Obama administration considers its response to GM's request for more cash, it should be mindful of the advantages of bankruptcy that haven't been highlighted -- certainly not by GM's management.

GM executives have been saying that in Chapter 11 its network of suppliers would collapse, dragging down the rest of the auto industry with their company. But Chapter 11 has well-established procedures to deal with this concern.

Bankruptcy may be the only way for GM to fully confront its operational problems, deal with its legacy costs, reconfigure its dealer network, and achieve a viable labor agreement.

But one issue that has not been discussed much is that bankruptcy usually leads to a sharp change in management. There are turnaround teams expert at restructuring troubled companies, and they may well be more effective than GM's current management. It's no surprise GM's management isn't advertising this fact, but taxpayers and the government should know about it.

In the end, the administration needs to keep in mind that vital elements in GM's restructuring -- recapitalizing its large bond debt and keeping what cash it has flowing to key suppliers -- are often dealt with successfully by bankruptcy courts. A bankruptcy could save GM -- though maybe not its management.

My Hush Money Theory Looks Pretty Good Right Now

I just skimmed through Obama's speech.  I am not particularly good at parsing this political stuff, so I won't.  The speech had a lot of the typical politician's assertions about features of his programs that have no basis in their actual design.  For example, he asserts that home bailout money won't go to the irresponsible, but there is no such design element in his actual plan (homeowners are eligible for bailouts based on various hard-wired value formulas and ratios -- there is no step where their motivation for becoming overextended is or even could be assessed, nor any step where the government may exercise discretion).

Anyway, the one overriding sense I got from reading the speech was that I was totally correct when I wrote this:

So you ask, will we get any stimulative effect?  I would answer:  Just one.  Obama and Congress will now shut the hell up trying to panic everyone into battening down the hatches for the worst economy in history, and folks can get a bit of breathing space to look around them and see that business opportunity is still there.  This is $800 billion in hush money, a bribe we are paying Obama and Pelosi in the form of passing a lot of their pent up leftish wish list, in return for them taking some ownership interest in real economic health.

When the Story Does Not Fit the Facts

Cooler heads are looking at the world economic data, and starting to come to the conclusion, voiced by yours truly a number of times, that the US financial crisis was/is a symptom of a world economic slowdown, not the other way around

Compare the decline in real GDP over the past 4 quarters (from The Economist):













Does it make sense to blame the largest declines in GDP on one country with the smallest decline?  If so, then we need some explanation of how some uniquely American "illness has spread" to so many innocent victims.

If the explanation is supposed to be falling U.S. imports, then the worst decline by far would have been in Canada and Mexico (where real GDP was rising even in the third quarter).  If the alleged causality is supposed to be because of some undefined links between financial centers, then Italy would not be among the hardest hit.

When it comes to trade, in fact, the shoe is mainly on the other foot: Collapsing foreign economies crushed U.S. exports.

In the second quarter of 2008, U.S. exports accounted for 1.54 percentage points of the 2.83% annualized rise in real GDP.  But falling exports subtracted 2.84 percentage points from fourth quarter GDP.  Falling exports, not falling consumption, were the biggest single contributor to the overall drop of 3.8%.

After looking at which economies fell first and fastest, it might be more accurate to say that some foreign  illness has spread to the U.S. economy than to assert or assume the causality ran only in the opposite direction.