Most people think we started stimuli and bailouts back in September with TARP. I go back even further. I go back to May of last year when the government bailed out Bear Stearns. Bear Stearns was days away from filing for bankruptcy when the Federal Reserve, in one weekend, stepped in and brokered a deal in which JP Morgan Chase would buy them out. Such a deal would normally take months to work out. Yet, this was worked out all in one weekend. You could say, as Michael Corleone would say, the Federal Reserve gave each an offer they couldn't refuse. Since Bear Stearns was on the verge of collapse, they had no room for bargain. The mere fact they would get bought out was good enough. As for JP Morgan Chase, the Federal Reserve sweetened the deal so much that they simply couldn't refuse. In other words, the Federal Reserve structured the deal so that it was so undervalued that Chase had to accept. They even backed it up with loans and equity.
When I first heard about this, I was shocked. Here was our central banker also acting as rainmaker, investment banker, and debt backer. This appeared to me to be a massive usurption of power. The story got its due of publicity but not nearly enough. Furthermore, while most business folks acknoweldged the troubling aspects of the Fed's power grab, they also justified it by saying the financial system would collapse without this deal. (Doesn't that sound familiar) No one, at the time, seemed to ask what sort of a system we had that one company, Bear Stearns, could bring it down. Of course, only months later Lehman Brothers failed and the system came down anyway.
I bring this up because the Bear Stearns fiasco was about thirteen months ago. Yet, things haven't gotten better but worse. Those that defend the bailouts clam, as the president did, that our financial system has come back from the brink. What exactly does this mean?
After all, lending has only tightened since Bear Streans, Lehman, and TARP. We've spent more than a trillion dollars to prop up the financial system and it's harder today to get a loan than it was before we spent all this money. Commercial mortgage lending is nearly non existent. Meanwhile, residential lending continues to get more and more difficult. In the months since TARP, Lehman, and Bear Stearns, things have only gotten worse in the credit markets.
When folks that defend the bailouts say we have come back from the brink, what they really mean is that things have gotten slowly worse since then. That's sort of like a .400 hitter who suddenly starts hitting .200. Then, you tell people that you brought him back from the brink because he's now only hitting .195.
Sure the financial companies are healthier. Of course, they are. We pumped two trillion dollars into the system. The Federal Reserve let's them borrowe for free (through a fed funds rate that is currently at ZERO). Of course, they've gotten healthier. We've spent trillions to make that happen. The problem is that their health hasn't filtered into the rest of the economy. Sure, their investment banking operations are making money. Sure, they make more margins on their own loans. (since they borrow for free) None of it makes its way into the rest of the system. So, when the feds say we brought the financial system back from the brink, what they really mean is that they made sure that bankers could continue enjoying profits. There's no evidence, however, that those profits were actually shared.
Mr. Miron makes an excellent point about the fundamental fallacy of bailouts.
By doing nothing, I mean we could have done nothing new. Existing policies were available, which means bankruptcy or, in the case of banks, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation receivership. Some sort of orderly, temporary control of a failing institution for the purpose of either selling off the assets and liquidating them, or, preferably, zeroing out the equity holders, giving the creditors a haircut and making them the new equity holders. Similarly, a bankruptcy or receivership proceeding might sell the institution to some player in the private sector willing to own it for some price.
With that method, taxpayer funds are generally unneeded, or at least needed to a much smaller extent than with the bailout approach. In weighing bankruptcy vs. bailouts, it's useful to look at the problem from three perspectives: in terms of income distribution, long-run efficiency, and short-term efficiency.
As a nation, we set up a sophisticated system for dealing with companies that failed, banks included. Yet, those that favored trillions in bailouts would have us believe that these systems weren't equipped to deal with the failures such companies as Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. Why not? When Bear Stearns went under our unemployment rate was in the fives, it's now nearly ten percent. The sort of doomsday scenarios that were floated to justify its bailout are occurring. The only difference is that it took over a year to get there, whereas without it we would have gotten there much faster.
The problem with bailouts is that it subverts some very important characteristics of markets. Markets are supposed to reward the strong and punish the weak. They reward risk but punish excessive risk. None of that is happening now. The folks that didn't dip too far into sub prime and other risky mortgages are the ones that are supposed to be benefitting from the failure of all those that did. Instead, those weak companies are propped up with endless amounts of government money. The reality is that if AIG had simply been allowed to fail, someone would have stepped in to buy it for pennies on the dollar and gladly taken on their debt obligations if the price was small enough. Instead, the federal government has pumped nearly two hundred billion into a company worth $1.5 billion. How does that make sense?
The same is true for endless bailouts of troubled borrowers. Those that favor bailouts, John McCain included, would tell us that mass foreclosures hurt not only the foreclosed but those around them. After all, everyone's property value falls when there are mass foreclosures. Of course, that's only true if you sell right away. It's also only true if you are a seller at all. One third of this nation rents. All of those folks would benefit from lower real estate prices. Once again, the dynamics of markets are dismissed. Those flushed with cash now would be able to take advantage of low home prices. Instead, the government props up home prices under the misguided notion that artificially keeping them up helps all. So, borrowers that became overextended are rewarded with new better rates. Meanwhile, qualified borrowers face all sorts of new ristrictions. Just think about it. The best deals in the mortgage market right now are for loan modifications. Those can go as low as 2%.
The biggest problem with bailouts is that stops the market bottom. Markets bottom out when those that survive see opportunities and invest back in. That isn't happening either on the corporate or individual end because government intrusion is stopping those opportunities. There should be millions of homes being sold in a desperate attempt to unload foreclosures. The recipients of those deals would create the bottom. There should also be thousands of health parts of hundreds of unhealthy financial firms that would be sold right now to financial vultures looking for deals. Just think about it. If Citigroup had been allowed to fail, someone would have gotten a deal for Salomon Smith Barney. Instead, Citigroup is kept whole through about $50 billion in government money.
Here's the real problem with all of this. Despite what some may claim, there is something called an economic cycle. Economic booms are followed by economic busts. The busts bottom out but only after the excess has been removed. That's removed when those that took too much risk are punished with removal. That isn't happening and so the bottom gets dragged out longer, much longer, than it needs to be.
That's why it's important to track the beginning of these bailouts to May of last year. Had we let Bear fail, it would have created a significant but quick crater. We would have had all sorts of economic pain. Yet, our pain would now be ending and we would be starting the recovery. Not to mention that the government wouldn't have spent two trillion dollars.