Rescue Plan as Viewed by Economists

Forget Congress for now, whatever emerges there is a compromise of the least objectionable ideas. I’m curious about how the intelligentsia views what is occurring. The most respected university in economics is the University of Chicago. Economists there took the leading in sending out a letter of caution – see below. The letter was signed by hundreds of economists across the country, including Dhananjay Nanda from the University of Miami.

To the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President pro tempore of the Senate:

As economists, we want to express to Congress our great concern for the plan proposed by Treasury Secretary Paulson to deal with the financial crisis. We are well aware of the difficulty of the current financial situation and we agree with the need for bold action to ensure that the financial system continues to function. We see three fatal pitfalls in the currently proposed plan:

1) Its fairness. The plan is a subsidy to investors at taxpayers’ expense. Investors who took risks to earn profits must also bear the losses. Not every business failure carries systemic risk. The government can ensure a well-functioning financial industry, able to make new loans to creditworthy borrowers, without bailing out particular investors and institutions whose choices proved unwise.

2) Its ambiguity. Neither the mission of the new agency nor its oversight are clear. If taxpayers are to buy illiquid and opaque assets from troubled sellers, the terms, occasions, and methods of such purchases must be crystal clear ahead of time and carefully monitored afterwards.

3) Its long-term effects. If the plan is enacted, its effects will be with us for a generation. For all their recent troubles, America’s dynamic and innovative private capital markets have brought the nation unparalleled prosperity. Fundamentally weakening those markets in order to calm short-run disruptions is desperately short-sighted.

For these reasons we ask Congress not to rush, to hold appropriate hearings, and to carefully consider the right course of action, and to wisely determine the future of the financial industry and the U.S. economy for years to come.

I’ll do a roll call of where other leading economists stand on the initial Paulson plan:

Bruce Bartlett – supports:

You can see the fear in Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s eyes and in those of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. But they dare not say how critical the situation is – lest it shake confidence and make matters worse.

This is not to say that the administration’s plan is the best we could do. But now is not the time to come up with something better. There is no time. The program can be revised later, when the emergency is past. For now, everyone should hold their noses and vote “yes” on the bailout.

Gary Becker – supports:

Despite my deep concerns about having so much greater government control over financial transactions, I have reluctantly concluded that substantial intervention was justified to avoid a major short-term collapse of the financial system that could push the world economy into a major depression.

Richard Epstein – rejects:

One bad regulatory turn leads to another, and lo, the bailouts come thick and fast. At the nth hour, wise heads often rightly conclude that some desperate measure has to be taken to prevent the financial disintegration brought on by, well, prior government regulation. Those bailouts, of course, come from the hides of taxpayers who borrowed prudently. The entire system subsidizes destructive behavior, which means that we will get more destructive behavior in the future. We might as well sell flood insurance at bargain prices in Galveston, Texas, and New Orleans.

Paul Krugman – supports:

The fundamental problem in the financial system is too little capital; bizarrely, the Treasury chose not to address that problem directly, by (say) purchasing preferred shares in financial institutions. Instead, the plan is premised on the belief that toxic mortgage-related waste is underpriced, and that the Treasury can recapitalize banks on the cheap by fixing the markets’ error.

So is it better to have no plan than a deeply flawed plan? If it was the original Paulson plan, no plan is better. Dodd-Frank-Paulson may just cross the line — let’s see what details we have if and when agreement is reached [weasel alert].

Joker in Dark Knight – rejects:

Treasury proposal not serious, let’s blow it up. See video.

Steven Landsburg – rejects:

What’s clear is that a bunch of financial institutions have made mistakes and lost money. What’s unclear is why anyone (other than the owners and managers) should care. People make mistakes and lose money all the time. Restaurants fail, grocery stores fail, gas stations fail. People pick the wrong stocks, they buy the wrong cars, and they marry the wrong spouses without turning to the Treasury for bailouts.

So what’s special about banks? According to what I keep reading, it’s that without banks, nobody can borrow, and the economy grinds to a halt.

Well, let’s think about that. Banks don’t lend their own money; they lend other people’s (their depositors’ and their stockholders’). Just because the banks disappear doesn’t mean the lenders will. Borrowers will still want to borrow and lenders will still want to lend. The only question is whether they’ll be able to find each other.

Greg Mankiw – supports:

Ben Bernanke is at least as smart as any of the economists who signed the [see above] letter or are complaining on blogs and editorial pages about the proposed policy. Moreover, Ben is far better informed than the critics.

Richard Posner – supports:

I do not criticize the delegation of the handling of the crisis to (in effect) the finance industry. I imagine that Bernanke and Paulson and their private-sector advisers are the ablest crisis managers whom one could find. I merely want to emphasize that the financial crisis is indeed a “crisis of capitalism” rather than a failure of government, though it will not and should not lead to the displacement of free-market capitalism by an alternative system of economic management. But it is already shifting the boundary between the free market and the government toward the latter.

Nouriel Roubini – rejects:

The Treasury plan (even in its current version agreed with Congress) is very poorly conceived and does not contain many of the key elements of a sound and efficient and fair rescue plan.

Specifically, the Treasury plan does not formally provide senior preferred shares for the government in exchange for the government purchase of the toxic/illiquid assets of the financial institutions; so this rescue plan is a huge and massive bailout of the shareholders and the unsecured creditors of the firms; with $700 billion of taxpayer money the pockets of reckless bankers and investors have been made fatter under the fake argument that bailing out Wall Street was necessary to rescue Main Street from a severe recession. Instead, the restoration of the financial health of distressed financial firms could have been achieved with a cheaper and better use of public money.

Robert Samuelson – supports:

But the biggest unknown lies elsewhere. What happens if Congress doesn’t approve the plan, or something like it? Zandi, a supporter, argues that the economy will get much weaker, that many more banks and financial institutions will fail, and that the rise of joblessness will be greater, as will the fall in tax revenue and the increase in unemployment insurance and other government payments. Is this scare talk or a realistic threat? The true cost of Paulson’s plan hangs on the answer, and if the danger is real and imminent, then the cost of doing nothing would be far greater.

All posts referenced are copied in full at end of post.

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The Crisis of Global Capitalism? — Gary Becker

On Sunday of this past week Merrill Lynch agreed to sell itself to Bank America, on Monday Lehman Brothers, a venerable major Wall Street investment bank, went into the largest bankruptcy in American history, while Tuesday saw the federal government partial takeover of AIG insurance company, one of the largest business insurers in the world. Instead of calming financial markets, these moves helped precipitate a complete collapse on Wednesday and Thursday of the market for short-term capital. It became virtually impossible to borrow money, and carrying costs shot through the roof. The Libor, or London interbank, lending rate sharply increased, as banks worldwide were reluctant to lend money. The rate on American treasury bills, and on short-term interest rates in Japan, even became negative for a while, as investors desperately looked for a safe haven in short term government bills.

The Treasury” extended deposit insurance to money market funds-without the $100,000 limit on deposit insurance. The Fed also began to take lower grade commercial paper as collateral for loans to investment and commercial banks, and the Treasury encouraged Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to continue to purchase mortgage backed securities.

Is this the final “Crisis of Global Capitalism”- to borrow the title of a book by George Soros written shortly after the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98? The crisis that kills capitalism has been said to happen during every major recession and financial crisis ever since Karl Marx prophesized the collapse of capitalism in the middle of the 19th century. Although I admit to having greatly underestimated the severity of this financial crisis, I am confident that sizable world economic growth will resume under a mainly capitalist world economy. Consider, for example, that in the decade after Soros’ and others predictions of the collapse of global capitalism following the Asian crisis in the 1990s, both world GDP and world trade experienced unprecedented growth. The South Korean economy, for example, was pummeled during that crisis, but has had significant economic growth ever since. I expect robust world economic growth to resume once we are over the current severe financial difficulties.

Was the extent of the Treasury’s and Fed’s involvement in financial markets during the past several weeks justified? Certainly there was a widespread belief during this week among both government officials and participants in financial markets that short-term capital markets completely broke down. Not only Lehman, but also Goldman Sachs, Stanley Morgan, and other banks were also in serious trouble. Despite my deep concerns about having so much greater government control over financial transactions, I have reluctantly concluded that substantial intervention was justified to avoid a major short-term collapse of the financial system that could push the world economy into a major depression.

Still, we have to consider potential risks of these governmental actions. Taxpayers may be stuck with hundreds of billions, and perhaps more than a trillion, dollars of losses from the various insurance and other government commitments. Although the media has amde much of this possibility through headlines like “$750 billion bailout”, that magnitude of loss is highly unlikely as long as the economy does not fall into a sustained major depression. I consider such a depression highly unlikely. Indeed, the government may well make money on its actions, just as the Resolution Trust Corporation that took over many saving and loan banks during the 1980s crisis did not lose much, if any, money. By buying assets when they are depressed and waiting out the crisis, there may be a profit on these assets when they are finally sold back to the private sector. Making money does not mean the government involvements were wise, but the likely losses to taxpayers are being greatly exaggerated.

Future moral hazards created by these actions are certainly worrisome. On the one hand, the equity of stockholders and of management in Fannie and Freddie, Bears Stern, AIG, and Lehman Brothers have been almost completely wiped out, so they were not spared major losses. On the other hand, that makes it difficult to raise additional equity for companies in trouble because suppliers of equity would expect their capital to be wiped out in any future forced governmental assistance program. Furthermore, that bondholders in Bears Stern and these other companies were almost completely protected implies that future financing will be biased toward bonds and away from equities since bondholders will expect protections against governmental responses to future adversities that are not available to equity participants. Although the government was apparently concerned that foreign central banks were major holders of the bonds of the Freddies, I believe it was unwise to give them and other bondholders such full protection.

The full insurance of money market funds at investment banks also raises serious moral hazard risks. Since such insurance is unlikely to be just temporary, these banks will have an incentive to take greater risks in their investments because their short-term liabilities in money market funds of depositors would have complete governmental protection. This type of protection was a major factor in the savings and loan crisis, and it could be of even greater significance in the much larger investment banking sector.

Various other mistakes were made in government actions in financial markets during the past several weeks. Banning short sales during this week is an example of a perennial approach to difficulties in financial markets and elsewhere; namely, “shoot the messenger”. Short sales did not cause the crisis, but reflect beliefs about how long the slide will continue. Trying to prevent these beliefs from being expressed suppresses useful information, and also creates serious problems for many hedge funds that use short sales to hedge other risks. Their ban can also cause greater panic in other markets.

Potential political risks of these actions are also looming. The two Freddies should before long be either closed down, or made completely private with no governmental insurance protection of their lending activities. Their heavy involvement in the mortgage backed securities markets were one cause of the excessive financing of home mortgages. I fear, however, that Congress will eventually recreate these companies in more or less their old form, with a mission to continue to artificially expand the market for mortgages.

New regulations of financial transactions are a certainty, but whether overall they will help rather than hinder the functioning of capital markets is far from clear. For example, Professor Shimizu of Hitotsubashi University has recently shown that the Bank of International Settlement (BIS) regulation on the required minimum ratio of bank capital to their assets was completely misleading in predicting which Japanese banks got into trouble during that country’s financial crisis of the 1990s. Other misguided regulations, such as permanent restrictions on short sales, or discouragement of securitization of assets, will both reduce the efficiency of financial markets in the United States, and they will shift even larger amounts of financial transactions to London, Shanghai, Tokyo, Dubai, and other financial centers.

Finally, the magnitude of this crisis must be placed in perspective. Although it is the most severe financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, it is a far far smaller crisis, especially in terms of the effects on output and employment. The United States had about 25 percent unemployment during most of the decade from 1931 until 1941, and sharp falls in GDP. Other countries experienced economic difficulties of a similar magnitude. American GDP so far during this crisis has essentially not yet fallen, and unemployment has reached only about 61/2 percent. Both figures are likely to get considerably worse, but they will nowhere approach those of the 1930s.

These are exciting and troubling economic times for an economist-the general public can use less of both! Financial markets have been seriously wounded, and derivatives and other modern financial instruments have come under a dark cloud of suspicion. That suspicion is somewhat deserved since even major players in financial markets did not really understand what they were doing. Still, these instruments have usually been enormously valuable in lubricating asset markets, in furthering economic growth, and in creating economic value. Reforms may well be necessary, but we should be careful not to throttle the legitimate functions of these powerful instruments of modern finance.
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The Financial Crisis: the Role of Government — Richard Posner

I agree with Becker that capitalism will survive the current financial crisis, even if it leads to a major depression (which it may not). It will survive because there is no alternative that hasn’t been thoroughly discredited. The Soviet, Maoist, “corporatist” (fascist Italy), Cuban, Venezuelan, etc. alternatives are unappealing, to say the least. But capitalism may survive only in damaged, in compromised, form–think of the spur that the Great Depression gave to collectivism. The New Deal, spawned in the depression, ushered in a long era of heavy government regulation; and likewise today there is both advocacy and the actuality of renewed regulation. I would like to examine the possibility that government is responsible for the current crisis; for if it is, this would be a powerful intellectual argument against re-regulation, though not an argument likely to have any political traction.

I do not think that the government does bear much responsibility for the crisis. I fear that the responsibility falls almost entirely on the private sector. The people running financial institutions, along with financial analysts, academics, and other knowledgeable insiders, believed incorrectly (or accepted the beliefs of others) that by means of highly complex financial instruments they could greatly reduce the risk of borrowing and by doing so increase leverage (the ratio of debt to equity). Leverage enables greatly increased profits in a rising market, especially when interest rates are low, as they were in the early 2000s as a result of a global surplus of capital. The mistake was to think that if the market for housing and other assets weakened (not that that was expected to happen), the lenders would be adequately protected against the downside of the risk that their heavy borrowing had created. The crisis erupted when, because of the complexity of the financial instruments that were supposed to limit risk, the financial industry could not determine how much risk it was facing and creditors panicked. Compensation schemes that tie executive compensation to the stock prices of the executives’ companies but cushion them against a decline in those prices (as when executives are offered generous severance pay or stock options are repriced following the fall of the stock price) further encouraged risk taking. Moreover, even when businesses sense that they are riding a bubble, they are reluctant to get off while the bubble is still expanding, since by doing so they may be leaving a lot of money on the table. Finally, if a firm’s competitors are taking big risks and as a result making huge profits in a rising market, a firm is reluctant to adopt a safe strategy. For that would require convincing skeptical shareholders and analysts that the firm’s below-average profits, resulting from its conservative strategy, were really above-average in a long-run perspective.

It should be noted that because of the enormous rewards available to successful financiers, the financial industry attracted enormously able people. It was not a deficiency in IQ that produced the crisis.

Becker makes incisive criticisms of the government’s responses to the crisis. He points out that those responses create moral hazard, specifically a bias toward financing enterprise by bonds rather than by stock because the government’s bailouts are limited to the bondholders and other creditors; create additional moral hazard because the responses include extending government insurance of deposits to money market funds; impede hedge funds by forbidding short selling, which enables the funds to hedge their risks; reduce information about stock values (another consequence of forbidding short selling); increase regulation of financial markets, which will carry with it the usual heavy costs of heavy-handed regulation; blur the role of the Federal Reserve Board by increasing its powers and duties; and increase the federal deficit.

But here is a remarkable thing about these responses. To a great extent they are not responses by government, really, but by the private sector. Bernanke and Paulson are neither politicians nor civil servants; Bernanke is an economics professor and Paulson an investment banker. Their principal advisers are investment bankers rather than Fed and Treasury employees. Even the prohibition of short selling, which seems like a product of the kind of mindless hostility to speculation that one expects from politicians, has been strongly urged by Wall Streeters, including the CEO of Morgan Stanley. The White House, the Congress, and even the SEC have been only bit players in the response to the crisis. In effect, the government’s power to repair the crisis that Wall Street created has been delegated to Wall Street.

It is true that the top financial officials of our government have usually come from the financial industry or academia. The difference is how recently Bernanke and especially Paulson were appointed, how heavily they are relying on financial experts from the private sector rather than on civil servants, and how small a role the politicians in Congress and the White House have played in shaping the response to the crisis.

I do not criticize the delegation of the handling of the crisis to (in effect) the finance industry. I imagine that Bernanke and Paulson and their private-sector advisers are the ablest crisis managers whom one could find. I merely want to emphasize that the financial crisis is indeed a “crisis of capitalism” rather than a failure of government, though it will not and should not lead to the displacement of free-market capitalism by an alternative system of economic management. But it is already shifting the boundary between the free market and the government toward the latter.
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About Jorge Costales

- Cuban Exile [veni] - Raised in Miami [vidi] - American Citizen [vici]
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