Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A dangerous new policy

The market turmoil today is easy to explain and easy to correct, but sadly, we will neither get a good explanation nor will we get the proper remedies. You will hear that it is because of the never-ending stream of bailouts that we are suffering through this, however that is not true. Up until last Sunday’s balk by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson regarding a rescue of Lehman, things had been going fairly well: banks were recapitalizing, shares in some of the most beleaguered sectors like housing and banks were starting to recover, commercial credit issuance was rising, mortgage lending was picking up and most important, the U.S. was outperforming other countries around the world both in terms of its stock markets and its economy. That’s how it looked right up until Paulson uttered those famous last words: “I never once considered using taxpayer money to help Lehman.” What followed was the largest stock market decline since 9/11 and a virtual Who’s Who of financial firms who are now queuing up to witness their own demise. At this very moment, we are in a virtual freefall with no endgame in sight.

Perhaps it was not necessary to save an investment bank like Lehman. After all, in a $14 trillion economy the failure of what was essentially a financial intermediary should have been taken in stride. The problem, as I see it, was that by essentially throwing up his hands and saying that the government was prepared to leave the resolution of this crisis to “the free markets,” he changed the game in one fell swoop.

First and foremost let us understand that the idea of the “free markets” is a fallacy. Markets exist within the framework of a national and indeed, sometimes global, political system; they operate and are governed by laws, regulations and tax codes. In some cases they are even accorded special protections and rights, like in the case of patents and trademarks, etc. The word “free” in free markets is a misnomer. We have competitive markets, not “free” ones.

Yet the fallacy persists and many feel that all problems are better solved by the omniscient free market. Markets do react to problems and eventually “resolve” them, in their own way and sometimes that can be brutal. I’ll invoke the words of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who said, when talking about the natural state of nature and man, that life in that state can be “nasty, brutal and short.” As humans we give up some personal freedom to form societies in which there are rules and authorities. This keeps us from devolving into what Hobbes observed as man’s natural state of war and chaos. The markets are no different: they can be reigned over and controlled and corralled to some degree, or they can exist in a wild state.

I believe that our na├»ve appeals to “the hand of the free market” are being heeded and that is what makes this so very scary. Many of those who have longed for this day will be surprised, and not in a good way mind you. I said on Fox Business the other day that those who were against bailouts are seeing their dreams come true, however, their dreams will soon turn to nightmares. The current situation has devolved into that natural state that Hobbes described. Moreover, no one will be spared; not even those misguided folks who railed against the bailouts thinking that their good behavior (they paid their mortgages on time, never over-leveraged and wisely saved) somehow insulated them from any possible misfortune. They’ll be sadly mistaken.

Even policy makers have gotten influenced by this perception. Misinformed and misguided cries of “taxpayer on the hook” is leading to dangerous new policy, where the government is no longer acting as a backstop or countervailing force (because that is viewed as putting taxpayers in jeopardy) but rather, acting unilaterally to seize private property with some warped idea that the government needs to make profits. This is highly dangerous in my opinion.

Thirty-six hours after Paulson said that he would not help Lehman, he and the folks at the Fed appeared to go back on their pledge, saying that they would rescue AIG, the insurance giant that was taking its last few steps up the gallows. The Lone Ranger came riding in at the last moment. Or did he? For this help (which was not asked for at least in the way it came), AIG would have to pay loan-shark interest rates and the company’s owners—the shareholders—who had already lost pretty much everything (AIG’s largest shareholder, Hank Greenberg, is said to have seen his net worth decline by as much as $7 billion in a matter of days), would have just about zero, as the government takes a majority ownership position.

Herein lies the problem as I see it. The government is not a profit seeking enterprise. Rather, it exists for the public purpose. Yet mandating the government to “make profits” on the false notion that this someone behooves taxpayers, will not only destroy taxpayers but destroy the economy as we know it.

At the end of the day no private business can compete for profits with government in an economy where taxes must be paid in a currency that the government has the monopoly power to issue. Think about it. A company is set up to sell widgets. It has to raise capital (remember, the government’s cost of capital is zero ‘cause it issues the stuff), it makes a profit of $100 and gives 10% to the government as tax, leaving it with $90. It also has to pay back investors or the bank that lent it money to start up. So, it’s really left with less than $90.

In contrast, the profit seeking government uses its own money, which it can issue without constraint, then sells widgets for $100 and pays no taxes to itself. It should be clear that pretty quickly the government ends up owning the means of all production. That’s not called Socialism; that’s called Communism. The markets are not afraid of Democratic Socialism, however, the markets ARE afraid of Communism. Really afraid!

By operating under the false notion that the government must “make a profit” and that private owners and risk takers must be destroyed each and every time a firm needs something as simple as a loan or loan guarantee, private sector risk taking understandably collapses. Who will take risk when the government stands ready to take your property, unilaterally, without invitation or even a discussion of whether or not you are getting some fair compensation for it? The answer is nobody! That is why you are seeing stocks collapse today.

In all of the recent examples: Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and AIG, the Fed or the Treasury could have extended loans or loan guarantees backed by these companies’ assets, charged an interest rate of whatever it chose, but preferably just above the yield on a 10-year Treasury, say. (Even though it could have chosen 0.0001% or any increment above 0% because the government’s cost of funds in zero) and that would have been sufficient “payback.”

In closing I will leave you with this example: Imagine if you went to buy a house and asked a bank for a loan, which the bank granted at some interest rate above the bank’s own cost of funds. That would be the bank’s “profit.” The bank will also secure the loan with the house. In other words, the bank can take the house if you default on the loan. I’m sure everyone understands this. Now imagine a scenario where the bank lends you the money at a specified interest rate, secures the loan with the property and owns whatever equity you build up in your home as well!! What kind of deal is that??? In the meantime, you are still stuck having to pay taxes and forking out money for the upkeep of the property. Who would buy a house??? The answer is nobody. But that is exactly the system we have set up here with the “bailouts" and this idea that the government should make profits. Herbet Hoover once said, "The business of government IS business." We had the Great Depression afterward.It should be no wonder, then, why investors are dumping stocks.


Billy said...

Good Post - I believe that sometimes the government should be in and other times businesses run porrly should be allowed to fail.

The problem is deciding which is which.


mike norman said...

I agree. Thanks for your comments!