One unhappy hallmark of the Great Recession is a dramatic spike in financial distress. Moody’s predicts that the default rate on corporate debt–which helps foretell bankruptcies–will be three times higher this year than in 2008. Home foreclosures are already at record highs, and going higher. Defaults on credit cards and other consumer debt will crest right behind mortgages.
The Obama administration is on the case, bailing out banks and homeowners and aiding dozens of industries either directly, through a financial-rescue scheme that could top $2 trillion, or indirectly, through the $787 billion stimulus bill. Automakers, furniture companies, real estate developers, and even porn magnates have their hands out.
Those efforts ought to help soften a sharp recession. But the unprecedented aid to the private sector may also unleash new problems, the way antibiotics have generated stronger strains of bacteria. “There’s something fundamental about the need for failure,” says Syd Finkelstein, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and author of Think Again: Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions and How to Keep It From Happening to You. “We’re tinkering with the genetic DNA of a capitalist society.”
The crash has laid bare many unpleasant truths about the United States. One of the most alarming, says a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is that the finance industry has effectively captured our government—a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises. If the IMF’s staff could speak freely about the U.S., it would tell us what it tells all countries in this situation: recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform. And if we are to prevent a true depression, we’re running out of time.
Brief remark – from early reports regarding the toxic assets plan, it appears that the Treasury envisions allowing private investors to bid for toxic mortgage securities, but only to put up about 7% of the purchase price, with the TARP matching that amount – the remainder being “non-recourse” financing from the Fed and FDIC. This essentially implies that the government would grant bidders a put option against 86% of whatever price is bid. This is not only an invitation for rampant moral hazard, as it would allow the financing of largely speculative and inefficently priced bids with the public bearing the cost of losses, but of much greater concern, it is a likely recipe for the insolvency of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and represents a major end-run around Congress by unelected bureaucrats.
Last week, the Federal Reserve announced its intention to purchase a trillion dollars worth of Treasury debt by creating the little pieces of paper in your pocket that have “Federal Reserve Note” inscribed at the top. In effect, the Fed intends to monetize the Treasury debt in an amount that exceeds the entire pre-2008 monetary base of the United States.
Apparently, the Fed believes that absorbing part of the massively expanding government debt and maybe lowering long-term rates by a fraction of a percentage point will increase the capacity and incentive of the markets to purchase risky and toxic debt. Bernanke evidently believes that the choice between a default-free investment and one that is entirely open to principal loss comes down to a few basis points in interest. Even now, the expansion of federal spending as a fraction of GDP has clear inflationary implications looking a few years out, so any expectation that long-term Treasury yields will fall in response to the Fed’s buying must be coupled with the belief that investors will ignore those inflation risks.
Oh-oh, looks like more tax troubles for another Democrat in Washington.
California’s Rep. Pete Stark, a senior House Democrat who helps write the nation’s tax laws, has been claiming a $1.7 million Maryland home as his principal residence in recent years, although he represents the Golden State’s 13th District on the east side of San Francisco Bay.
The 77-year-old Stark has saved himself nearly $3,900 in state and county taxes by claiming the six-acre waterfront estate as his principal residence, according to an investigation by Bloomberg News.
Maryland law allows the tax break only to those residences used “for the legal purposes of voting, obtaining a driver’s license, and filing income tax returns.”
Notified of the discovery, a state official said an investigation would be launched.
This is a book report on The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities, by Mancur Olson. There isn’t a whole lot about how nations pulled themselves out of their medieval stagnation (see A Farewell to Alms for that), so a better title for this still-in-print book from 1982 would be “How Rich Countries Die.”
Table 1.1 shows annual rates of growth in per-capita GDP for each of three decades, the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, in a range of rich countries. Contrary to our perception of the U.S. as a growth dynamo and the Europeans as sclerotic, France and Germany tremendously outperformed the U.S., as did most of the other countries. If we have grown larger it is because our population has expanded much faster than the European countries.
Chapter 2 summarizes Olson’s groundbreaking work on how interest groups work to reduce a society’s efficiency and GDP. Some of this work seems obvious in retrospect and indeed Adam Smith noted that businessmen rarely met without conspiring against the public interest. There are a handful of automobile producers and millions of automobile consumers. It makes sense for an automobile company, acting individually, to lobby Congress for tariffs. The company will reap 20-40 percent of the benefits of the tariff. It doesn’t make sense for an individual consumer, however, to lobby Congress. It will cost him millions of dollars to lobby against Congress and preventing the tariff will save him only a few thousand dollars on his next car purchase. The economy suffers because some resources that would have been put to productive use are instead hanging around Washington and because cars are more expensive than they should be.
Why are the unsecured creditors of banks and quasi-banks like AIG deemed too precious to take a hit or a haircut since Lehman Brothers went down? From the point of view of fairness they ought to have their heads on the block. It was they who funded the excessive leverage and risk-taking of banks and shadow banks. From the point of view of minimizing moral hazard – incentives for future excessive risk taking – it is essential that they pay the price for their past bad lending and investment decisions. We are playing a repeated game. Reputation matters.
Three arguments for saving the unworthy hides of the unsecured creditors are commonly presented:
I have been collaborating with Benoit Felton, a Yankee Group analyst based in Paris, and others on a map of FTTP (fiber to the premises) sites worldwide. For now, I’m doing most of the U.S. sites as time permits. There are still quite a few to add, since the U.S. FTTP deployments tend to be local municipal or utility networks, with the notable exception of Verizon’s successful FiOS service.
It’s pretty impressive, and is something to think about when your local telecommunications provider claims that you should be happy with your 1Mbps DSL connection.
John Thain is giving us a tour of what is soon to become America’s most infamous office, with its $87,000 rug, $68,000 sideboard, $28,000 curtains – all part of a $1.2m redecoration scheme. This was early December, a little under two months before Thain would be fired in the same room by his new boss, Ken Lewis, chief executive of Bank of America.
For now, before a price tag had been placed on every item in his office, the 53-year-old chief executive of Merrill Lynch was in high spirits. The worst year on Wall Street in nearly a century was coming to an end, and Thain could rightfully claim to have saved his bank from ruin. Over a weekend in mid-September, as Lehman Brothers collapsed into bankruptcy, Thain pulled off a coup: he persuaded BofA, one of the few financial giants in the US that didn’t need government money to survive, to pay $29 per share for his own firm, even though Merrill was days away from following Lehman into bankruptcy.
Thain had taken over as Merrill chief executive nine months before that weekend deal. Now, he appeared to be one of the few Wall Street leaders who grasped the enormity of the credit crisis. Thanks to his analytical approach to the marketplace, it seemed, Merrill shareholders could look forward to a stake in Bank of America. “I have received thousands of e-mails saying, ‘Thank you for saving our company’,” Thain told us that day. And yet he admitted that the decision to sell Merrill Lynch – a 94-year-old institution that was always “bullish on America” – had been painful. “This was a great job. This was a great franchise. Emotionally, it was a huge responsibility.”
from the Phillipines.
BUFFETT: …And, Joe, it–if you’re in a war, and we really are on an economic war, there’s a obligation to the majority to behave in ways that don’t go around inflaming the minority. If on December 8th when–maybe it’s December 7th, when Roosevelt convened Congress to have a vote on the war, he didn’t say, `I’m throwing in about 10 of my pet projects … [snip] …
JOE: Yeah, but you might–might not have fixed…
BUFFETT: But I say…
JOE: You might not–you might not have fixed global warming the day after–the day after D-Day, Warren.
BUFFETT: Absolutely. And I think that the–I think that the Republicans have an obligation to regard this as an economic war and to realize you need one leader and, in general, support of that. But I think that the–I think that the Democrats–and I voted for Obama and I strongly support him, and I think he’s the right guy–but I think they should not use this–when they’re calling for unity on a question this important, they should not use it to roll the Republicans all.
More from Shailagh Murray.