Free Markets, Free People

bailout


Beware of Greeks holding referendums

Well it looks like the much touted Euro economic package for Greece may be coming apart more quickly than expected, thanks to the bombshell announcement by Greek PM George Papandreou.  Papandreou has decided, apparently without consulting anyone else, that the package should be put up for a vote.  As the Wall Street Journal points out, a no vote could be disastrous:

A "yes" vote in the referendum could deflate the massive street protests and strikes that threaten to paralyze Greece as it tries to enact a brutal austerity program to earn rescue loans from the euro zone and the International Monetary Fund.

A "no" vote, however, could bring down the government and cut off international funding for Greece, leaving the country facing a financial meltdown.

Of course the country is already facing a financial meltdown, austerity measures have sparked violent protests for months and the purpose of the package agreed upon by European leaders was designed to help avert a meltdown and save both the Greek economy (as much of it as can be saved), while propping up the Euro.

As you might imagine, the surprise announcement was not favorably met by other European leaders.  In fact, it wasn’t met favorably by a lot of Greek leaders who apparently had no idea that a referendum was in the offing.

Jean-Claude Juncker, who chairs meetings of euro zone finance ministers, refused to rule out a Greek debt default.

"The Greek prime minister has taken this decision without talking it through with his European colleagues," he said in Luxembourg.

Asked whether a Greeks "no" vote would mean bankruptcy for Greece, Juncker responded: "I cannot exclude that this would be the case, but it depends on how exactly the question is formulated and on what exactly the Greeks people will vote on."

I think most understand that no matter how the “question is formulated”, a vote against the plan would most likely send Greece spiraling down the drain and the fear is it would take the Euro with it

Markets, which had calmed down after the plan was announced, have had the expected reaction to the Papandreou referendum plan. They’ve headed down:

Greek Premier George Papandreou said he will put the nation’s bailout deal through a referendum, potentially undoing a long-awaited agreement struck last week and sending European stocks down 3.3 percent. The region’s bank shares fell 6.4 percent.

"European leaders feel as if they’ve been blindsided by Papandreou," said Chad Morganlander, portfolio manager at Stifel, Nicolaus & Co in Florham Park, New Jersey.

He said the move underscored the current risk in Europe and threw a wrench into the region’s stability plan.

The Dow dropped 2% on the news.

While our attention is on the Palinization of Herman Cain, we need to really keep an eye on this impending crisis.  If Greece has a referendum and the vote is “no”, what Cain did or didn’t do in the 1990s isn’t really going to matter much.  We’ll have another financial tsunami headed our way and we’d better begin to batten down the hatches.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO


“Obama saved the car industry with bailout” narrative begins to form

Ron Klain, former Chief of Staff for Joe Biden (and a Bloomberg View columnist) gives you a peek at the plan.  Klain has a piece in Bloomberg where he puts the outline of what the administration needs to do to spin the car bailout properly if it hopes to make it a campaign positive.  Klain’s suggestions are offered to form the basis of a narrative which will be polished and become a center-piece of the record of Barack Obama.   The reason for beginning now is obviously an attempt to condition the public, which was very much against the bailout (and mostly remain so), to the supposed positive aspects of the takeover by government.

Of all the policy challenges I saw Obama tackle in my two years in the White House, none was more complex than turning around the U.S. auto industry. When the president took office, the industry was in free fall. Sales of cars and trucks, which had topped 17 million in 2006, fell to 10.6 million in 2009. Two of America’s three major automakers were insolvent, kept alive by weekly inflows of federal cash. U.S. automakers had an unsustainable cost structure, were badly trailing their foreign competitors in the production of fuel-efficient and electric vehicles, and seemed unable to make the hard choices needed to arrest their downward spiral.

The course the president chose was unexpected and risky. Most Americans remember that the administration decided to "bail out" the car companies — and indeed, the president did extend more loans and support to the industry. But he attached to the aid a series of controversial and painful conditions that ended business as usual in Detroit.

Call it “gutsy call II” if you will, but in reality, it is far from the picture that Klain ends up painting.  Both the car companies were headed toward bankruptcy – a financial condition they had earned by their poor practices and sellouts to unions.   Obama’s bailouts certainly ended “business as usual” for those two companies but not in a positive way.

One of the consistent memes is that had Obama not acted, GM and Chrysler would have gotten the equivalent of a death sentence by having to go into bankruptcy.  By death sentence I mean the administration and its bailout supporters imply millions would have been thrown out of work and those two companies would have forever disappeared.

Uh, no.  As Jim Manzi at NRO explains:

First, in the event of a bankruptcy, you don’t burn down the factories, erase all the source code on all the hard disks, make it illegal to use the brand name Chevrolet, and execute all of the employees. Others take ownership of the assets, and the employees go on with their lives. Some of these assets will be put to use generating revenues, profits, and taxes, and some of these former employees will get jobs or start businesses, and generate revenues, profits, and taxes. In order to measure the effect of the bailout over, say, five or ten years, you have to compare the actual taxes collected to what would happened over this same period in the counterfactual case where the bankruptcy was allowed to proceed. What owners would have bought the factories and IP assets, and what would they have done with them? What businesses would the former employees have started? Who would have moved to Arizona and retired? What new industry clusters will evolve in Arizona because of this transfer of people?

And what would have come out of the bankruptcy?  Leaner companies better equipped to address the market and turn a profit.  What wouldn’t have come out of the bankruptcy are the level of union pensions and benefits the administration preserved.  Obama, through his bailout and modified bankruptcy made sure those were weren’t destroyed.  Consequently you have pretty much the same conditions that existed prior to the bailout still in existence today with the added twist of more union control. 

GM, for instance, just before it announced it had “paid off” its government loans, lost 3.4 billion dollars.  Hans Bader, of the Competitive Enterprise Institute destroys the myth of GM’s loan payback with an extensive investigation into the real story.  It is a story of known falsehoods being tacitly approved by the White House and the Treasury Department because the administration was desperate for some good news at the time.  The Chrysler loan payback, as I noted recently, is of the same stripe.  More smoke and mirrors from the “transparent” administration.

But back to the bailouts and the reasons.  The defense offered for the bailout is this:

The White House report said the money invested in GM and Chrysler ultimately saved the government tens of billions of dollars in direct and indirect costs, including the cost of unemployment insurance and lost tax receipts that the government would have incurred had the big Detroit auto makers collapsed.

Again, that assumes nothing comes out of any bankruptcy proceedings.  Nothing.  And, as Jim Manzi of NRO explains above, that’s simply not how it works.   It is an assumption without any real world foundation.   We’re talking a zero sum assumption by the administration where no assets are bought, no one goes back to work, everyone is unemployed and no one can find a job.   That’s just not the way bankruptcies (or the real world) work.

Also:

Second, some of the profit GM makes today would have been made by other companies that picked up some of the slack if the company lost market share after a bankruptcy. They would pay taxes on these profits, and as far as government receipts are concerned, money is money. How would auto industry structure evolve over time given whatever changes happened to the assets currently owned by the legal entity GM, or the employees currently paid by it?

Anybody who tells you they can answer all of these questions reliably is full of it.

Indeed.  Again, the White House and its cronies must push the black and white version of this to make it saleable.  If they can’t make you believe in their “either/or” scenario, then they can’t sell the lie.   They’re banking on a large degree of economic ignorance to sell this.  But they know that if they rely on the fact and figures they’re going to end up on the wrong side of the argument.  So Klain says, break out the smoke and mirrors once again – sell it on emotion:

First, tell the story with fewer numbers and more emotion; less prose and more poetry. Rescuing the auto industry isn’t just a matter of saving jobs and factories — it means preserving a uniquely American manufacturing tradition. Cars are more American than apple pie or hot dogs (which, unlike the automobile, were both invented in Europe). We couldn’t have won World War II without this "arsenal of democracy"; as Walter Reuther famously said, "England’s battles were won on the playing fields of Eton, but America’s were won on the assembly lines of Detroit." The president needs to jujitsu Republican critics who accuse him of failing to understand American exceptionalism by pointing out his success in saving this exceptionally American industry.

You have to love the fact that even Klain doesn’t believe his own nonsense, but has no problem advising the president to use it.  Note too that Klain seems not to remember that one of the reasons that GM and Chrysler were on the ropes had to do with the American public choosing competitive foreign cars over the American cars from those two companies (and with the VOLT, we see GM again in the same condition.   But he feels if he wraps it all in emotions and not facts (a variation on “hope an change” that worked so well in 2008), they can fool enough voters into accepting the narrative or at least, not caring about it.

Second, equally emphasize the pain that was imposed as a condition of support, and the hard and unpopular choices the president made. It was a plan of “shared sacrifice,” in which executives were fired, workers lost jobs, benefits and pay were cut, and dealers were shut down. The story of the tough choices the president made along the way must be told to convince the public that this wasn’t a handout.

Of course, this plays into the part of the narrative in which you must believe their “either/or” scenario – that is had the government not acted, millions of jobs would have just vaporized.   Of course, what Klain describes above would most likely have been the result of normal bankruptcy proceedings minus the $50 plus billion government money injected into GM.  They don’t what that known though.  And, naturally, they don’t want any speculation about what would have emerged, how many jobs would that would have entailed, etc.

If you start down that road and use the history of bankruptcies and the emergence of companies from that situation as a basis, you’ll have a very difficult time swallowing the administration’s story.  So avoid those facts at all costs and concentrate on “emotion” and “pain”.

Finally – Klain advises the White House to crank up the propaganda:

Third, let the people of the auto communities tell their own stories — encouraging homegrown viral videos and other uses of social and new media. This is a lesson I learned the hard way during the 18 months I was part of the White House team that struggled to explain the benefits of the Recovery Act. We used visits by the president and vice president, videos posted on WhiteHouse.gov, as well as endless statistics and charts and maps and graphics on Recovery.gov — and yet nothing got the job done. Finally, two ice-cream shop owners made an iPhone video that told the story better than we ever had, by showing how a single small business loan rippled across their area to create jobs in countless other businesses.

The White House needs a similar personal narrative to tell the auto rescue story, or it will risk being denied a return to Victory Lane in 2012.

So there is the plan – “emotion, pain and propaganda” – that Klain claims the administration should use to sell something that is about as un-American as the internment of Japanese/American civilians during WWII.  The most interesting part, of course, is Klain understands that if  they get into the specifics of this “deal” and the facts come out, it ends up looking like a very poor decision.  And Klain knows that the opposition, once it finally settles on a candidate and its own narrative, is going to seize on this subject as a part of their attack on the Obama record.

He instinctively knows that any chance of blunting that, or making it a non-issue, requires that the administration’s narrative be out there actively being pushed now and that it has to be spun properly for it to work.

How do you counter this?  With facts.  And the facts are aplenty.  There is no shortage of factual information that can gut these arguments and show them for what they are  – emotion and propaganda.  The opposition also has to use “American exceptionalism”  in its proper way and point to the fact that the administration misusing “exceptionalism” in its version. 

And that doesn’t even start to get to the really long-run considerations of what effects this has on rule of law and moral hazard (or if you want to make the case for the bailout, social solidarity and degradation of the working class).

One of the things America prides itself on is “rule of law”.  That is a large part of our exceptionalism.   We also founded a country that attempts to avoid the moral hazards that abound in this sort of a situation.  We are and for the most part always have been a meritocracy.  You get what you earn.  We don’t buy into exceptions because they’re “too big to fail”.  We understand that freedom means the freedom to fail and we don’t bail out –selectively- failures.  We don’t throw good money after bad, and we certainly don’t expect our government to interfere in that process.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO


GM to pay 400 million in bonuses without loans being paid back … where’s the left on this?

Giving the left the benefit of the doubt, maybe they didn’t know about this.  Because I’m sure, just as they blasted Wall Street for paying bonuses after receiving bailout money and TARP funds, they’d be keen to be consistent and do the same to GM.

Less than two years after entering bankruptcy, General Motors will extend millions of dollars in bonuses to most of its 48,000 hourly workers as a reward for the company’s rapid turnaround after it was rescued by the government.

The payments, disclosed Monday in company documents, are similar to bonuses announced last week for white-collar employees. The bonuses to 76,000 American workers will probably total more than $400 million — an amount that suggests executives have increasing confidence in the automaker’s comeback.

But the comeback was and is still financed by taxpayers money and borrowing.  What in the world is GM doing paying out bonuses when it still owes at least $40 billion in loans?  That $400 million would be a nice chunk toward that payback, wouldn’t it?

But the bonuses drew criticism from an opponent of the auto industry bailout in Washington who said GM should repay its entire $49.5 billion loan before offering bonuses.

"Since the taxpayers helped these companies out of bankruptcy, the taxpayers should be repaid before bonuses go out," said Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa. "It sends a message that those in charge take shareholders, in this case the taxpayers, for a sucker."

Yeah, kind of hard to argue otherwise, isn’t it?  And no, for you that believed all the hype, GM hasn’t paid back its loans despite the commercials it made claiming it had.  It isn’t even close to paying them off.

That said, I’m sure, once the story gets out that the left will be just as consistent in slamming GM for paying bonuses without repaying its loans as it was with taking Wall Street (properly I might add) for precisely the same reason.  (HT: Maggie’s Notebook).

Oh, and by the way:

Ford Motor Co. announced plans last month to pay its 40,600 U.S. factory workers $5,000 each, the first such checks since 1999. The Dearborn, Mich., company, which avoided bankruptcy and did not get a government bailout, made $6.6 billion last year.

Ford also plans to pay performance bonuses to white-collar workers in lieu of raises, but it would not reveal the amounts.

Good for them and congratulations.

~McQ


U.S. Spurns Aid To California. Really?

In one of those “make sure you read the whole article” stories in the Washington Post, it begins like this:

The Obama administration has turned back pleas for emergency aid from one of the biggest remaining threats to the economy — the state of California.

Top state officials have gone hat in hand to the administration, armed with dire warnings of a fast-approaching “fiscal meltdown” caused by a budget shortfall. Concern has grown inside the White House in recent weeks as California’s fiscal condition has worsened, leading to high-level administration meetings. But federal officials are worried that a bailout of California would set off a cascade of demands from other states.

If you read no further than that, you’d probably think, “thank goodness, a modicum of sanity has returned to the federal government”. It is California’s mess and California, along with the other states, need to learn a hard but necessary fiscal lesson here.

But, while perfectly correct in your assessment, you’d be wrong to think that the present rejection is final. Buried a few paragraphs down is this:

These policymakers continue to watch the situation closely and do not rule out helping the state if its condition significantly deteriorates, a senior administration official said. But in that case, federal help would carry conditions to protect taxpayers and make similar requests for aid unattractive to other states, the official said. The official did not detail those conditions.

I’m sure he or she didn’t. This is another Geithner plan based in the premise that California is “too big to fail” – the 8th biggest economy in the world and its failure would slow down the economic recovery of the US.

Given that inclination on the part of Geithner, it would appear that nothing has been learned from the Chrysler and GM bailouts, failure and eventual bankruptcies. Granted, California’s “failure” would be quite a bit larger than those two, but haven’t we yet learned that propping up a unsustainable business or government model just doesn’t work?

While it may be painful for both California and the US, nothing changes in California unless massive cuts and changes are made in that government. And, as has been evident to even the most tuned out of constituents, the California government model has been unsustainable for over a decade.

Naturally, California wants to characterize their plight in the way that will appeal the most to the emotions:

“After June 15th, every day of inaction jeopardizes our state’s solvency and our ability to pay schools and teachers and to keep hospitals and ERs open,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) said Friday.

But the hard fact remains that the solvency of all those institutions are in jeopardy with or without a bailout. We’re simply talking about how long we want to extend the problem not how to solve it. Solutions mean massive cuts in government spending and resultant reductions in government services. Or said another way, California is finally going to have to live within its means or fail.

That’s not a condition the rest of the taxpayers in this country brought about, and it certainly isn’t one they should be on the hook to “bailout”. And that goes for every other state in that condition as well (see the article and its mention of how Treasury is thinking about doing something with auto suppliers in Michigan – is that the job of Treasury).

~McQ


Throwing the BS Flag (Update)

The usual suspects have blamed the usual suspects in the GM bailout:

Austan Goolsbee, a senior economic adviser to President Obama, said the administration’s options were sharply limited by President Bush’s handling of the auto industry, and accused the prior administration of running out the clock.

“They shook up the can. They opened the can and handed [it] to us in our laps,” Goolsbee said on Fox News Sunday.

“When George Bush put money into General Motors, almost explicitly with the purpose — how many dollars do they need to stay alive until January 20th, 2009, there was no commitment to restructuring, to making these viable enterprises of any kind,” said Goolsbee, who serves as staff director and chief economist of the Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

All of that is probably true, but the BS flag is thrown at the implication that the Bush administration left them with few options such that it had to funnel more and more bailout money into GM.

There was a clear second option – back off, tell GM that bankruptcy and restructuring are the best option and let the system take care of it. But they didn’t. They made the case that GM was “too big to fail” and that the “downstream impact” in terms of unemployment was unacceptable.

The continued bailout had two outcomes that the Obama administration wanted but won’t admit. One – they got a majority equity stake in the company. And they manipulated the bankruptcy proceedings to preserve that majority.

Secondly, it saved the jobs of a favored special interest group, the UAW, until such a time they too could be handed an equity stake in the “new” company through the manipulated process.

Without the Bush administration’s bailout, none of that would have been possible. And, of course, previous to taking office, Obama had lauded the handling of the GM problem.

So the Goolsbee blame shifting is more than nonsense, it’s nonsense on stilts.

UPDATE: Keith Hennesy, a member of the Bush administration who dealt directly with this subject and the incoming Obama administration throws a very detailed BS flag of his own.  [HT: Rick Caird]

~McQ


Closing Dealerships Via Barack-Foolery?

I watched this story percolate throughout the day, wondering if there was anything of substance to it. Even now I’m not entirely sure how much is pure speculation and how much can be decisively proven. If any of it turns out to be true, however, then the repercussions could prove politically fatal. Doug Ross has the scoop:

A tipster alerted me to an interesting assertion. A cursory review by that person showed that many of the Chrysler dealers on the closing list were heavy Republican donors.

To quickly review the situation, I took all dealer owners whose names appeared more than once in the list. And, of those who contributed to political campaigns, every single one had donated almost exclusively to GOP candidates. While this isn’t an exhaustive review, it does have some ominous implications if it can be verified.

However, I also found additional research online at Scribd (author unknown), which also appears to point to a highly partisan decision-making process.

[...]

I have thus far found only a single Obama donor (and a minor one at that: $200 from Jeffrey Hunter of Waco, Texas) on the closing list.

Chrysler claimed that its formula for determining whether a dealership should close or not included “sales volume, customer service scores, local market share and average household income in the immediate area.”

In fact, there may have been other criteria involved: politics may have played a part. If this data can be validated, it would appear to be further proof that the Obama administration is willing to step over any line to advance its agenda.

Doug notes some anecdotal evidence to back up his theory, and reading through the various personal accounts from dealerships who claim to be successful, and yet who are being shut down, lends some credibility to the idea. As does the fact that the closing list is reportedly populated almost exclusively with Republican donors and/or those who gave money to Obama’s Democratic rivals. But the real test is in a comparison of the lists of dealerships staying open and those that are closing against a campaign donor database (which I haven’t done, but feel free to scrutinize them for yourself).

Nevertheless, the following bit of research from Red State strikes an ominous chord:

Eric Dondero recognizes some of the dealers’ names on the hit list:

“Vern Buchanan is a Republican Congressman from the Tampa Bay area. Robert Archer is the son of former Republican Congressman Bill Archer. John Culberson, a libertarian-leaning Conservative, is now the Congressman for that West Houston District. He was heavily supported in his election efforts by the Archers Family.”

“Additionally, James Crowley, owner of a Chrysler Dealership in Escondido, California is on the list to be closed. Crowley is a big backer of libertarian-leaning Republican Cong. John Campbell of Orange County.”

The list is heavy with influential Republicans and libertarians. Another name on the list is Ray Huffines, who owns a large dealerhsip in the Metro-Dallas/Ft. Worth area. The Huffines family have been major contributors to Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) over the years.

It’s hard to know what to make of all this, but at first blush it certainly looks like the decisions to close dealerships may have been influenced by the political affiliations of the dealers. Under regular circumstances that would elicit a big shrug, but when Chrysler’s decisions are basically being made for them, well, that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish (via Reliapundit):

A lawyer for Chrysler dealers facing closure as part of the automaker’s bankruptcy reorganization said on Tuesday he believes Chrysler executives do not support a plan to eliminate a quarter of its retail outlets.

Lawyer Leonard Bellavia, of Bellavia Gentile & Associates, who represents some of the terminated dealers, said he deposed Chrysler President Jim Press on Tuesday and came away with the impression that Press did not support the plan.

“It became clear to us that Chrysler does not see the wisdom of terminating 25 percent of its dealers,” Bellavia said. “It really wasn’t Chrysler’s decision. They are under enormous pressure from the President’s automotive task force.”

Given the other sorts of thuggery that have been alleged in these Chrysler proceedings, this should come as no shock. But the fact that these closings will have to be approved by the creditors in the bankruptcy case lends a certain bit of intrigue to this case and raises a lot questions in my mind.

Assuming that the closings are motivated by political payback from Obama, how will that plan affect the stakeholders in the new company? If there really are profitable dealerships being shutdown just because they gave money to the wrong candidates, then it stands to reason that the remaining dealers will be something less than the cream of the crop, and therefore the new Chrysler will have a less than optimal distribution chain for its products. It’s not entirely clear why shutting down dealerships helps Chrysler anyway, since they are essentially the real customers of the carmaker, but it seems to me that those who plan to profit from the new venture would have something to say about the plan in the bankruptcy case. Presumably, they will want to protect their investment by challenging any plan for closings that does not maximize their return. If and when they do, it could get very interesting for Obama (again, assuming that any of this is true).

It should be noted that until some further confirmation surfaces, this story should be treated with a healthy dose of skepticism. Indeed, if it weren’t for the rather dictatorial way the Obama administration has dealt with the entire automaker bailout fiasco, these allegations of political payback would ring pretty hollow. Yet, considering the past bullying, the story definitely merits further consideration, so keep your eyes and ears open for more.


Bailouts Not Diverse Enough

If you’re going to hand out big bucks, you need to do it in a politically correct manner.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus on Monday criticized the lack of minority participation in the government’s financial bailouts and suggested that President Barack Obama isn’t doing much better than his predecessor to ensure diversity.

These particular vultures are feeling a bit peevish. They’re just not seeing the flow of money to their favored constituencies that they expect – especially with a brother in the Oval Office. I mean, come on – we are talking trillions here, right?

Where’s theirs?

~McQ


Dead Ed, the Collapse, and eBay Saves Us All

My first reaction to Pres. Obama’s speech last night was depression.  Here were the Democrats giving the president standing O’s for completely converting the Republic into a social democracy.  I mentioned that on Facebook, and one of my readers said it reminded him of Amidala’s line from Star Wars Episode III:  “So this is how liberty ends…with thunderous applause.”

But on more careful review, I find that I am not, in fact, depressed over the long-term.  Indeed, last night’s speech seems to me not to herald the beginning of a new era for big government and socialism, but rather the last gasp of a dying ideology.

We are, I think, at the cusp of a new era, but it isn’t the one that Pres. Obama and his acolytes in the Congress are thinking it is.  Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans, it is clear, have any idea about what is happening.  Very few people do.  I am going to try and explain something very complicated, and do so very simply, and as briefly as I can.  So, with the realization that all simplifications are inevitably wrong in some particular, let me explain.

“Ed’s dead, baby.  Ed’s dead.”*

We stand now, I think, in a very historically similar position to the one described by Barbara Tuchman, in the beginning chapter of her monumental work on the outbreak of Word War I, The Guns of August:

20 May 1910:  The past passes in review

20 May 1910: The past passes in review

So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when 9 kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, 3 by 3 the sovereigns rode though the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came 5 heirs apparent, 40 more imperial or royal highnesses, 7 queens, and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented 70 nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled 9 by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.

Four years later, the world order of 1815-1914 was drowned in fire and blood.  The Age of Royalty was over, and the Age of Democracy had begun.  I believe that Pres. Obama’s speech of last night may very well be the historical equivalent to Edward VII’s funeral.

Ever since it began in late 2007, a blog called Fabius Maximus has been arguing that we are watching the decline and fall–indeed, collapse–of our current economic and financial system.  A précis of the argument can be found here, and a more comprehensive archive can be found here.  Just as the black-clad crowds lining the streets of the capitol of the British Empire on the morning of May 20, 1910 might have found it inconceivable that their generation would witness the collapse of both the European geopolitical regime, and, ultimately, the British Empire itself, so it may be inconceivable to us that we are witnessing the collapse of the Post-WWII economic and political regime.  But I believe it is nevertheless true.

“MONEY! Doesn’t it make you feel good just to say that, Jerry?”

Let me start by explaining what money is.  Money is a medium of exchange, that is, it is an object of some kind that I can exchange for goods and service, rather than trying to barter with people to obtain what I need.  It may consist of elaborately carved cowry shells, tiny beads painstakingly stitched to strips of leather, round pieces of metal with the image of guys named Julius or Claudius hammered into them, or little pieces of high-quality paper that say “Federal Reserve Note” on them.

But whatever it is, money has certain minimal characteristics.  It must be convertible, i.e., if I do a job for you, I have to be willing to accept it as payment, and whoever I buy bread or clothes from has to be willing to accept it in exchange, too.  It also has to be difficult to replicate, so that when I accept it, I am reasonably assured that it is the genuine article.

Get 'em while they last.

Get 'em while they last.

For nearly all of recorded history “money” has been synonymous with gold or silver.  And right up till the late 18th century, it was more or les the perfect money.  It was intrinsically valuable, in that raw silver or gold was as easily convertible as hammered or minted coins.  It was also practically impossible to counterfeit, the best efforts of alchemist to convert dross into gold notwithstanding.  It was also relatively rare, and it difficult to obtain new supplies of it without intensive–and extremely expensive–mining operations.

Additionally, there simply wasn’t much to buy.  Most people grew their own food, produced their own clothes from flax or wool, and built their own houses by hand.  Money was essentially a luxury, and it bought mainly luxury goods for fat cats.  Kings could raise and equip armies with it.  Merchants could buy nice clothes. But for the most part, money was a tool for use by the rich, and by the relatively few urban dwellers.  And, as such, gold or silver was perfect for that level of economic activity.

By the 19th century, though, there were lots more things to buy, and lots more city dwellers, and that trend was increasing rapidly.  Hard money became…problematic.  The thing about having a hard currency based in gold or silver is that, at the end of the day, whether you run a fully convertible gold standard, or some sort of fractional reserve system, the size of the money supply is always constrained by the amount of gold or silver on hand.

If the economy takes off on a tear, it’s extremely difficult to expand the money supply to meet the demand.  When the supply dries up, the economy just shudders to a quick stop, because nobody has enough spare money to fund more expansion.  So the economy collapses until it reaches equilibrium with the available money supply, and the cycle starts again.  Look at a chart of US economic activity in the 19th century and you see it’s a system of booms and busts, which were far steeper than any we’ve seen since the depression.  So the fundamental problem with a gold standard is that it’s relatively inflexible when used by a vibrant, diverse economy.  When everybody needs gold, and the demand is unpredictable, gold is very difficult to use unless you’re willing to live with severe booms and busts.

The Great Depression was the death knell for the gold-based world economic system.  Those nations that jettisoned gold the fastest, recovered the most.  Of course, WWII intervened in the depression, so it took a decade or so to get back to the business of commerce–as opposed to the business of building things to kill Nazis.   But, by 1944, everyone–on the Allied side, at least–had recovered enough breathing room to meet at Bretton Woods, NH, and hammer out a new economic system.

What they came up with was a system of fiat currencies, all freely convertible in the FOREX market.

Now, governments could adjust their money supplies appropriately by printing more money or less of it, and taxing their populations more leniently or more severely, as needed.  This is the system most of us have grown up with…and it’s dying.

It’s dying because of something innate in human nature that the gold standard was better equipped to deal with:  the urge to loot the system.

It’s an urge that has always been there.  Sometimes it has been the result of intentional government action to cheapen the currency.  If you were, say, the king of Persia, you didn’t need to consult the priests of Ahura Mazda to know that if you changed from using 10 grams of gold per coin, to using only 9 grams per coin, you could stretch your gold supply by 10%.  You could then take the extra gold, and buy yourself a nice hat.  Or use the extra gold to make one.  Whatever.

Of course, people would notice this pretty quickly, and items that used to cost 9 gold pieces would cost 10 pieces–inflation!–but because gold had an intrinsic value, the same weight of gold could be exchanged.  It was still pernicious, of course, but because gold had an intrinsic value–and because the supply of gold was relatively inflexible–it wasn’t usually seriously pernicious.

Sometimes, the urge to loot the system has been done by private individuals, who figured out that if they shaved a bit off the edges of their gold pieces, they could accrue enough gold shavings to buy themselves a nice hat, too.  This, by the way, is why when we began minting coins instead of hammering them out. They were minted with milled edges, making shaving attempts immediately obvious.

By the 19th century, the looting attempts became widespread, populist movements, like the “Free Silver” movement.  At the time, gold was real money.  If you took a bunch of gold to a Minting facility, the mint would return you an equal weight in gold coins–minus a nominal minting fee.  After huge silver deposits were discovered at places like the Comstock Lode, populist agitation began for minting silver in the same way, at a ratio of 20 ounces of silver for 1 ounce of gold.  The massive amount of silver floating around would, of course, have made this an extremely inflationary policy, and the farming and borrowing interests would have benefited by paying off bills for less than they had borrowed…enabling themselves to use the extra saving to buy a nice hat.

But during the First Age of Money, the looting was always constrained by the fact that gold had an intrinsic value, and that the supply of gold was inelastic.  There were, therefore built-in constraints to the looting impulse.

When the Bretton Woods Agreement launched the Second Age of Money, it solved the problem of the inelasticity of the money supply, and enabled monetary authorities to fine-tune the money supply in response to economic activity.  That was a good thing in the sense that it flattened–although did not eliminate–the business cycle fluctuations.

But the bad thing was that it completely removed any physical restraint on the money supply.  It depended on governments and monetary authorities to exercise self-restraint, rather than impersonal, externally imposed constraints.  The result has been 65 years of continually expanding credit, more or less constant inflation to a greater or lesser degree, and unrestrained spending and borrowing.

Governments–and their democratic (small “d”) constituencies quickly learned that they could loot the system.  Social insurance, medical care, military expansion…whatever the Big Idea of the minute was, we could have it.  And if we didn’t want to pay the taxes to the government to pay for it–and, mostly, we didn’t–we could simply borrow it.  We could obtain a whole bunch of little green pieces of paper now in exchange for a promise we’d pay back more little green pieces of paper sometime in the future.  In the meantime, we could buy all the hats we wanted!

But now, we are obligated to pay back various people about fifty trillion pieces of green paper.  Unfortunately, the entire household worth of everyone in the country is worth about forty trillion pieces of green paper.

How can the current economic and financial system possibly be considered solvent at this point?  How will re-expanding the cycle of debt re-invigorate it?

No, we’ve had our fun.  We got to loot the system for 65 years.  Now, the hat bill is coming due.

I suspect we’ll pay the hat bill the same way that Germany repaid their war reparations debt after WWI.  “Hey, you remember that reparations bill for 3 billion marks that we’re supposed to pay next week?  Yeah.  I just wanted to let you know that we’ve sent that order off to the printers, this week, and we should have that printed up for you by Tuesday.”

The result was massive hyperinflation, the collapse of credit, and 5 years of compete economic stagnation, serious economic pain, severe unemployment…and the ability to start over in the mid-20s with a clean balance sheet.  Clean enough, in fact, that by 1936 Germany had more or less completely emerged from the Great Depression, while the employment rate in the United States hovered at around 18%.

What Pres. Obama is proposing may result in nothing more than additional spending that helps bring about the collapse of the Post-WWII economic regime, while at the same time providing–temporarily–a social safety net that will provide some help as we pass through a difficult transitional period.

“I was there at the dawn of the Third Age of Mankind…”

OK.  Maybe it’s not that grandiose, but I think we are seeing the dawn of the Third Age of Money.

No one in the government realizes how the economic world is changing.  So their proposed solutions are likely to be exposed over time as ineffective and, perhaps even counter-productive.  The credibility of governments around the world is now invested in staving off an economic collapse.   When their failures become evident, and their “solutions” are exposed as fantasies, that credibility will collapse.  Who will want to buy government bonds, or use worthless government money?  Who will trust the governments who lead us into the economic abyss?

Unfortunately, rather that realizing that we are entering a transition, and trying to discover how to shepherd us through that transition, they are invested in preserving the dying system of government-regulated money supply and credit.  And even if they realized that we were in a transitional period, they would still do nothing about it because it would require voluntarily releasing their power over the economy.

Governments have always been in charge of money; determining what money is, how it will be exchanged, how new money will be created, etc.  In part, this is traditional, in that only government had the resources and ability to fund and oversee mining and exploration activities, regulate what legal tender consisted of, and all of the other monetary functions.  There simply were no other large organizations in existence to perform those tasks.

It wasn’t until the 17th century that organizations began to emerge that could begin performing those tasks, and not until the 18th century that it became practical.  Private money of various types began to sprout up everywhere.  18th-century America was, for a time, replete every decent-sized bank issuing its own currency based on deposits.

Eventually, the Federal government cracked down on that private money, not so much from jealousy of the government’s role as the issuer of currency, but because private banks suffered from the same tendency to loot the system, issuing more and more inflated currency until it was worthless, and they ended up wiping out their depositors in the collapse as their obligations came due.  There were some solid money banks of course, but the spectacular failures of so many private currency attempts led the government to tax them so heavily that private currency issuance became uneconomic. Governments may not have been perfect, but the constraints of the gold system meant that they didn’t fail as completely and spectacularly as private banks did.

What was missing in private currency of the time, and what has been missing in the current post-WWII financial system is feedback.  Yes, there is some, but it takes a long time to filter into the monetary authority, and is derived indirectly from statistics on economic activity, rather than by any sort of direct observation.  The Fed raises interest rates today, for instance, and it takes around eight months to observe the indirect effects of the monetary policy change.   This is why the role of the Fed, has often been described as steering a car by looking through the rear-view mirror.  Based on seeing where you’ve been, you make decisions about where you must go.  That may be a form a feedback, but it is so separated in time from the inputs that it’s an inherently unstable system.

By the same token, what killed depositors in banks that issued private money was a lack of feedback.  It wasn’t possible to see that bankers were looting the system in time to withdraw your money.

We call this lack of feedback asymmetrical information.  We’ve never been able to even approach the ability to have full information about what a bank or government is doing that may affect the money supply, or economic activity as a whole.  We’ve never been able to see all sides of the story, as it were.  So, we’ve had to more or less leave it in the hands of government, simply because governments have been the only organizations with the size and scope to reduce, even partially, the problem of feedback.

So, it seems pretty hopeless, doesn’t it?  The financial world we’ve grown up with is collapsing under the sheer weight of looting.  If governments can’t do it, and a return to the gold standard can’t do it, then where are we?  At the edge of another dark age?

Not quite.

I foresee the rise of private money once again, and returning in such force as to negate the government’s role in the economy.  In fact, the pieces for creating the Third Age of Money are already there.

Your new ATM

Your new ATM

The Internet will be the platform for the new money.  But it’s just the platform; the communications media.  The actual objects that make up the Third Age of Money will almost be located in cyberspace.

First, there is encryption.  In the not-too-distant future, you will go online with a persona, i.e., an online identity with a unique, highly encrypted digital signature.  No more logging in with different user names and passwords at 100 different web sites.  Your persona will be uniquely identified as you through the use of 4096-bit or 8192-bit public key encryption.  Your persona will be impossible to forge or duplicate.  It will be unique.  Your “bank” and your “money” will be similarly encrypted.

Second, is your ATM/debit card.  It won’t be exactly the same, of course.  It will be far more secure, probably through the use of biological identification systems to verify authorization, such as retinal scans.  It will be linked directly to your persona’s bank account.

Third, is the ability of all the major banks and credit card companies to do online transactions, and to convert one system of private money to another at a publicly known exchange rate.  So, you can pay directly to your account–or withdraw from it–in Discover Dollars, or MasterBucks, or Credit Suisse Francs.  Or perhaps there might even be a universally acknowledged unit of currency–the “Credit”–that all the private companies agree to use.

But, the most important element of creating a reliable private money system that is resistant to looting the system is feedback. The reduction of asymmetrical information.  And that exists, too.  eBay has been using it for years.  Indeed, in no small way, the system implemented by eBay may be a key element of our future.

Imagine a system where, every time I do business with your persona, I rate your reliability, and it doesn’t matter of the persona is an individual or a bank…or a government.  Every day, millions of people who do transactions in MasterCard can rate the reliability and value of the MasterBucks system.  Private companies like Standard and Poors or Moody’s would not only rate MasterBucks, but consumers would rate the reliability of S&P or Moody’s judgments.

And not only are the bank’s persona’s being rated, but your persona is as well, by every one who does business with it.

Put them all together and you have a secure form of private money that’s convertible, impossible to forge, and is subject to constant feedback about its value and performance.  Does MasterBucks have too high a debt ratio or too much exposure to non-performing loans at MasterCard?  No problem.  It’s instantly convertible to Credit Suisse Franks.  And the conversion rate lowers MasterBucks reliability ratings even more, signaling the company to correct its course, or lose its depositors.

Think of the implications this has for taxation, especially income taxation.  Keep all your money in Credit Suisse Francs, say, and the US government will never even be able to see a record of your deposits or withdrawals.  How will they track your income?  And who will want to pay governments that failed to prevent the collapse for…well…anything?  Who will accede to the demand for money by governments that repudiated their debts, and destroyed the life savings of millions?

I can foresee huge implications for the future that are very pro-liberty.  In the long term.  In the short term, though, if I’m right, and the current financial system is collapsing we will be in for a very rough decade or so.  Very rough indeed.

_________________

*Apologies to Quentin Tarantino.


NYT Asks: “Why Can’t Cerberus Foot the Bill?”

Welcome to the club. I’ve been asking that question for some time now. Better late than never, I suppose:

Chrysler said the only reason it was back asking for more money so soon was that the car market was worse than it had expected two months ago.

This cavalier approach to the public purse raises a very big question. If Chrysler is really on track for a turnaround and all it needs is some financing to get over a bad patch in sales and debt markets, why doesn’t Cerberus Capital Management, which owns 80 percent of the company, put up the money itself? Why should taxpayers have to take the risk? That’s what private equity funds like Cerberus are supposed to do.

Cerberus and Daimler, which retained a stake in Chrysler, have promised to convert $2 billion in loans to Chrysler into equity, which should help reduce its debt. But Cerberus said giving fresh money would violate its fiduciary duty to investors, breaking company rules limiting how much it can commit to any given investment.

We suspect these rules would be more pliant if Cerberus deemed Chrysler to be a good deal.

It seems the secretive private-equity fund is willing to gamble on Chrysler’s survival with the taxpayer’s dime, but not its own.

The real question is, if it is violative of Cerberus management’s fiduciary duty to bail out its own company, why is it fiscally responsible for the federal government to do so?

And what does it say when the leader of liberal opinion has more qualms about a bailout than the federal government? Nothing good I would think.

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