Free Markets, Free People

Bruce McQuain

The “Geithner Plan”, Front And Center – Will It Work?

The Geithner Plan for “Bad Bank Assets” has been published in the WSJ under Geithner’s name. It is pretty much that which was leaked and critiqued by Dale here.

James Joyner wonders:

To my non-economist mind, that sounds eerily remniscient of the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), the $700 billion plan passed last October to prop up the frozen financial system by buying, well, troubled assets. Granting, arguendo, that the Bush administration, which ran the first part of TARP, was evil and incompetent and the Obama administration is all sweetness, light, and omniscience, why would this work any better the second time around?

Paul Krugman, as we noted last week, is not impressed by this plan at all:

This is more than disappointing. In fact, it fills me with a sense of despair.

After all, we’ve just been through the firestorm over the A.I.G. bonuses, during which administration officials claimed that they knew nothing, couldn’t do anything, and anyway it was someone else’s fault. Meanwhile, the administration has failed to quell the public’s doubts about what banks are doing with taxpayer money.

And now Mr. Obama has apparently settled on a financial plan that, in essence, assumes that banks are fundamentally sound and that bankers know what they’re doing.

It’s as if the president were determined to confirm the growing perception that he and his economic team are out of touch, that their economic vision is clouded by excessively close ties to Wall Street. And by the time Mr. Obama realizes that he needs to change course, his political capital may be gone.

Krugman goes on to discuss the economics of the situation and a relatively easy way to solve the banking problem. Probably one of the more striking lines in his discussion is:

But the Obama administration, like the Bush administration, apparently wants an easier way out.

This speaks to a theory we’ve all discussed about certain aspects of the job of president in which Barack Obama displays very little interest. From his chuckling though his “punch drunk” interview with Steve Frost yesterday on “60 Minutes” (an invitation to view him as unserious about the crisis) to his seeking an easy and fast solution to the banking crisis, it seems that this is one of those areas which holds little interest for him. He wants it dealt with as quickly as possible (or at least seemingly dealt with so it is at least off of the front pages) so he can move on to his real interest – his costly social agenda.

Anyway, read all of the Krugman critique.

Brad DeLong thinks Krugman may be wrong and lists 3 reasons why:

1. The half empty-half full factor: I see the Geithner Plan as a positive step from where we are. Paul seed it as an embarrassingly inadequate bandaid.

2. Politics: I think Obama has to demonstrate that he has exhausted all other options before he has a prayer of getting Voinovich to vote to close debate on a bank nationalization bill. Paul thinks that the longer Obama delays proposing bank nationalization the lower it’s chances become.

3. I think the private-sector players in financial markets right now are highly risk averse–hence assets are undervalued from the perspective of a society or a government that is less risk averse. Paul judges that assets have low values beceuse they are unlikely to pay out much cash.

While it is nice to be optimistic, it is also important to be realistic. Frankly I think DeLong’s optimism isn’t realistic in the face of this particular crisis and I’m inclined to believe the Krugman critique to be more “spot on”. I have no confidence that this plan will solve the problem.

One of the problems the administration faces which is above and beyond the “workability” of the plan itself is related to the AIG bonus blowup in Congress. Private investors are gunshy about participating – for good reason:

The backlash on Capitol Hill means private firms may think twice about taking part in Geithner’s public-private partnership, even though government financing will limit their risk and increase the potential of earning profits, said David Kotok, chairman and chief investment officer of Cumberland Advisors Inc., in Vineland, New Jersey.

“We expect that the participation in the program to be announced this coming week will be tepid at best” because of “fear that any action which puts them into the federal assistance plan will subject them to the chance of retroactive punishment and taxation,” Kotok said.

A real “chilling effect” given Congressional and adminstration overreaction to the bonus situation. Reports are Obama is cooling to the idea of retroactive taxation, but, right or wrong, there is still going to be a demand for some sort of action. We’ll see what sort of leadership Obama tries to exert concerning those bonuses if any.

~McQ

Podcast for 22 Mar 09

In this podcast, Bruce, Michael and Dale talk about the AIG bonus Fiasco, limiting executive pay,  and the public’s tolerance for President Obama.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

The intro and outro music is Vena Cava by 50 Foot Wave, and is available for free download here.

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2007, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.

Quote Of The Day

And a fairly surprising one. Regardless of your opinion of Barack Obama, most people consider him to be a great orator and communicator.  Or at least they have until recently:

Of all the pitfalls Barack Obama might face in the presidency, here is one not many people predicted: He is struggling as a public communicator.

Indeed he is – read the whole piece by Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen of Politico.

The Honeymoon Is Definitely Over

Yesterday I mentioned Paul Krugman’s trashing of the Geithner plan, now the NYT op-ed page triumvirate of MoDo, Thomas Friedman and Frank Rich take a few shots as well.

Friedman tried mightily to temper his criticism by claiming the that GOP was using this horrible crisis as an opportunity for partisan bashing.

We’re in a once-a-century financial crisis, and yet we’ve actually descended into politics worse than usual. There don’t seem to be any adults at the top — nobody acting larger than the moment, nobody being impelled by anything deeper than the last news cycle. Instead, Congress is slapping together punitive tax laws overnight like some Banana Republic, our president is getting in trouble cracking jokes on Jay Leno comparing his bowling skills to a Special Olympian, and the opposition party is behaving as if its only priority is to deflate President Obama’s popularity.

Interesting. Friedman was no where in sight, of course, when Democrats were engaged in precisely what he accuses the Republicans of doing during the war in Iraq. As with many on the left, apparently history started on January 20th of this year.

OTOH, deflating Obama’s popularity is politically important to the GOP, because anyone who watches politics knows full well that Obama plans to trade on his popularity to pass the economy killing legislation he want to see passed. This ain’t bean bag, Mr. Friedman.

Frank Rich likens this crisis to “Bush’s Katrina moment”:

A charming visit with Jay Leno won’t fix it. A 90 percent tax on bankers’ bonuses won’t fix it. Firing Timothy Geithner won’t fix it. Unless and until Barack Obama addresses the full depth of Americans’ anger with his full arsenal of policy smarts and political gifts, his presidency and, worse, our economy will be paralyzed. It would be foolish to dismiss as hyperbole the stark warning delivered by Paulette Altmaier of Cupertino, Calif., in a letter to the editor published by The Times last week: “President Obama may not realize it yet, but his Katrina moment has arrived.”

Rich implies that Obama doesn’t recognize the depth of political risk this crisis carries for him. And I agree. Obama, it appears, thinks he can lay this all off on “inherited” problems. But he can’t. It’s his now. While it may have been right to say New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco were the real reason Katrina was a fiasco, that’s not who much of the public ended up blaming. Bush too seemed not to understand the depth and breadth of the anger (whether right or not) that Katrina spawned. Obama seems even less aware of the risk, jetting around the country having moved on to defending his budget and appearing on comedy shows while the financial crisis lingers and deepens. As I’ve said a number of times on this blog, it is all about leadership, or the lack thereof. In reality, it is the “lack thereof” on which both Rich and Friedman are actually commenting.

Maureen Dowd wonders if, after watching Michelle Obama talk about the White House garden, perhaps the wrong Obama is in the Oval Office.  She then let’s the male Obama have it with both barrels:

It’s a time in America’s history where we need less smooth jazz and more martial brass.

Barack Obama prides himself on consensus, soothing warring sides into agreement. But the fury directed at the robber barons by the robbed blind in America has been getting hotter, not cooler. And that’s because the president and his Treasury secretary have been coddling the Wall Street elite, fretting that if they curtail executives’ pay and perks too much, if they make the negotiations with those who siphoned our 401(k)’s too tough, the spoiled Sherman McCoys will run away, the rescue plan will fail and the markets will wither. (Now that Mr. Obama has made $8,605,429 on his books — including $500,000 for letting his memoir be condensed into a kids’ book — maybe he’s lost touch with his hole-in-the-shoe, hole-in-the-Datsun, have-not roots.)

Despite all the appeals to class warfare, what is at the base of her criticism?

Lack. Of. Leadership.

The nation elected someone who has never once been in a position in which he had to lead. Mr. Obama is a charmer and someone who knows what to say to please his audiences. But he’s never had to translate what he says into action. He’s never had to really take full ownership of his agenda, at whatever level, and implement it. He has never had to ‘make it happen’.

Where does one learn to do those sorts of things? From experience. Take a new lieutenant and make him a battalion commander and I can promise one poorly led battalion which will fail at its first leadership test. That’s because the LT isn’t a leader yet. He first had to serve as a platoon leader and learn leadership skills. Then if he does well there and is advanced in rank, he’ll eventually get a chance to become a company commander and fine tune those skills with a larger organization. Again, if he shines and is further advanced in rank and responsibility, he may get a shot at a battalion command. But he will first prove himself to everyone’s satisfaction at the lower level leadership positions before he is even considered for that job.

Anyone – what lower level position held by Barack Obama did he demonstrate the leadership necessary to do the job he now holds? Why is charm more important politically than experience and leadership abilities?

Apparently Krugman, Dowd, Rich and Friedman are suddenly discovering what many of us have understood from the beginning – Obama is completely unqualified for the job he holds.

Unfortunately for all of us, if ever there was a worst time for such a man to be President of the United States, this is probably it.

~McQ

The Difference Between A Business and A Government

At least when it comes to spending money. Business takes a hard look at the potential and when there doesn’t seem to be any, it pulls back. Government, on the other hand, decides it believes something has a future and spends money to try to make their belief a reality.

For example:

Oil Major Royal Dutch Shell Plc doesn’t plan to make any more large investments in wind and solar energy in the future and does not expect hydrogen to play an important role in energy supply for some time.

“We do not expect material amounts of investment in those areas going forward,” Linda Cook, head of Shell’s gas and power unit told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday.

“They continue to struggle to compete with the other investment opportunities we have in our portfolio,” Cook said of solar and wind.

Shell’s future involvement in renewables will be principally limited to biofuels, which the world’s second-largest non- government-controlled oil company by market value believes is a better fit with its core oil and gas operations.

Now let’s be clear. “Oil companies” such as Royal Dutch Shell understand that in reality they’re “energy companies”. They realize that somewhere in the far distant future, we’ll wean ourselves from fossil fuels and they need to be in a position to supply what we decide is the viable alternative fuel(s) for that time. And my guess is, they’ll do so.

However, on a purely business assessment of “potential” (that would be potential profit) for some of the favorite alternatives of this era, Shell just doesn’t see a real future, at this time, in solar, wind or hydrogen.

With one exception:

In the past year, the company said it was refocusing its wind business on the U.S. as it pulled out of European projects.

Can anyone guess why that may be? Well, whether or not wind works or has a real application anytime soon, there’s money being promised for R&D. Why not get a little of it even while pulling back in Europe where it sees no real future for wind at this time? They’d like to keep researching it, but why spend their own money when it would appear they can use yours?

Meanwhile, I’m sure we’ll hear all about the government no longer subsidizing Big Oil with tax breaks (while you pay the difference at the pump).

I’m no arguing for tax subsidies or anything else. I’m just pointing out a few things. Shell obviously believes there’s no real business potential in the alternatives it’s backing out on right now. But it will certainly accept subsidy money for wind research if our government is handing it out, all the while our government is telling us it is no longer subsidizing Big Oil. It’s an irony thing.

In the meantime, given Shell’s decision, I don’t expect much from the billions of your money the government plans on throwing at alternatives any times soon. But I could be wrong. After all, isn’t there a new emerging “conventional wisdom” about markets among the anti-capitalists among us?

Markets – they’re always wrong, aren’t they?

~McQ

The Danger Of Trying To Be Funny

Barack Obama accepted an invitation to be on the Jay Leno show for a number of reasons. One was to show he was hip, cool and could be funny. He apparently felt the timing was right for another charm offensive. Secondly, he wanted to go where no sitting president had ever gone – a late night comedy show. Three is related to two – he hoped to reach an audience that he may have otherwise been unable to reach with his budget message. And four, the media coup that would result would hopefully reverse his seeming slide in popularity.

Of course the risk was that he wouldn’t be funny and thus bomb or that he’d say something he shouldn’t have and everything else would be forgotten while the gaffe dominated the coverage. Looking at the risk vs. the reward and completely involved in the hubris surrounding Obama, his handlers obviously thought the risk was minimal. Sure enough the gaffe scenario materialized and completely overshadowed the hopes he had about his appearance.

Sometimes, it seems, you can be too clever for your own good. And Obama’s “Special Olympics” remark, meant to be self-deprecating, was instead taken as an insult to Special Olympians. The irony, of course, is the petard upon which he was hoisted is one of the left’s own making.

Humor has become a “no tolerance” zone when it comes to some subjects. Offending an underprivileged, “special”, racial, ethnic, or in a few cases, religious(you have to be of a “protected” religion to qualify) group has become a mortal sin.

Everyone knew what Obama meant when he used the term “Special Olympics” concerning his attempts to bowl. It wasn’t mean, it certainly wasn’t meant to denigrate the effort of Special Olympians nor was he attempting to purposely offend them. Instead he was taking a shot at himself and his inability to do better than he has in that particular game. And he did so with a poor choice of words, the result of an unthinking attempt to be humorous on a humor show.

Had he instead compared his effort to a white guy trying to play basketball or a Christian trying to win converts in Saudi Arabia, approved hilarity would have ensued and his all of his hopes for his appearance might have born fruit.

You’d think, as a child of the left, he’d know that, wouldn’t you?

~McQ

Zombie Ideas And Moral Hazard

Paul Krugman has seen the new Treasury plan (the “Geithner plan” as he calls it) that addresses the problem with the banks and he finds it wanting:

The Geithner plan has now been leaked in detail. It’s exactly the plan that was widely analyzed — and found wanting — a couple of weeks ago. The zombie ideas have won.

The Obama administration is now completely wedded to the idea that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the financial system — that what we’re facing is the equivalent of a run on an essentially sound bank. As Tim Duy put it, there are no bad assets, only misunderstood assets. And if we get investors to understand that toxic waste is really, truly worth much more than anyone is willing to pay for it, all our problems will be solved.

The plan itself is a three part plan as described here:

The plan to be announced next week involves three separate approaches. In one, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation will set up special-purpose investment partnerships and lend about 85 percent of the money that those partnerships will need to buy up troubled assets that banks want to sell.

In the second, the Treasury will hire four or five investment management firms, matching the private money that each of the firms puts up on a dollar-for-dollar basis with government money.

In the third piece, the Treasury plans to expand lending through the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility, a joint venture with the Federal Reserve.

The Geithner Plan

The Geithner Plan

The goal of the plan is to leverage the dwindling resources of the Treasury Department’s bailout program with money from private investors to buy up as many of those toxic assets as possible and free the banks to resume more normal lending.

 As noted, Krugman is not impressed. In fact, he suddenly discovers the problem of “skewed incentives” and “massive” moral hazard:

To this end the plan proposes to create funds in which private investors put in a small amount of their own money, and in return get large, non-recourse loans from the taxpayer, with which to buy bad — I mean misunderstood — assets. This is supposed to lead to fair prices because the funds will engage in competitive bidding.

But it’s immediately obvious, if you think about it, that these funds will have skewed incentives. In effect, Treasury will be creating — deliberately! — the functional equivalent of Texas S&Ls in the 1980s: financial operations with very little capital but lots of government-guaranteed liabilities. For the private investors, this is an open invitation to play heads I win, tails the taxpayers lose. So sure, these investors will be ready to pay high prices for toxic waste. After all, the stuff might be worth something; and if it isn’t, that’s someone else’s problem.

Or to put it another way, Treasury has decided that what we have is nothing but a confidence problem, which it proposes to cure by creating massive moral hazard.

How in the world could the level of intrusion contemplated by the government create anything but “skewed incentive” and “massive moral hazard”? But that aside, will it work?

Per Krugman, probably not:

This plan will produce big gains for banks that didn’t actually need any help; it will, however, do little to reassure the public about banks that are seriously undercapitalized. And I fear that when the plan fails, as it almost surely will, the administration will have shot its bolt: it won’t be able to come back to Congress for a plan that might actually work.

What an awful mess.

Indeed. And an amazing admission by Krugman who was as sure as anyone in the tank for Obama that he’d be “the answer” to all of our problems. Instead he’s discovering what a lot of Obama supporters are discovering – Obama’s an empty suit who is more interested in the perks and rewards of the office than the work it entails.

Quote Of The Day

From, of all people, Paul Krugman (discussing the AIG debacle specifically and financial policy generally):

This administration, elected on the promise of change, has already managed, in an astonishingly short time, to create the impression that it’s owned by the wheeler-dealers. And that leaves it with no ability to counter crude populism.

Uh, I guess the honeymoon is over?!

~McQ

A Million French Can’t Be Wrong …

Yes, it is spring and that means protest season in France (note the previous attempt in January didn’t turn out too well due to global warming effects).  This time, though, it’s not the “youths” doing the protesting.  Instead we are treated to union driven protests.

 The reason?

The protests, which drew substantially more people into the streets than a similar outpouring Jan. 29, were depicted by union leaders as part of a sustained campaign to pressure President Nicolas Sarkozy to do more to defend French people against the economic upheaval that has unfurled across the planet since the fall. In particular, they called on him to raise low-end wages and unemployment benefits and to make it harder for business leaders to fire employees when profits sink.

It's a win-win - Kerry goes too!

It's a win-win - Kerry goes too!

And we complain about our liberals being economic ignoramuses. Per the French mob, the ticket to recovery is to raise wages, raise unemployment benefits and prevent businesses – which most likely pay for those unemployment benefits (not to mention higher wages) – from letting workers go when their profits sink. Wow … economics worthy of Timothy Geithner, Barney Frank and Chris Dodd.

See, the French really deserve our Congress for their legislature. They’d be absolutely perfect together. Simpatico. Nancy Pelosi would be the toast of Paris and Harry Reid – ok, even the French wouldn’t put up with Harry Reid, so let’s not get too carried away. But seriously, have you ever seen a mob and a Congress (or administration for that matter) that thought so much alike?

It’s like a marriage made in heaven. The Congress and administration could transfer themselves to a country where the economic damage has already been done and the economy is already chronically lethargic, the welfare state is established to include universal health care and the control they seek over industry and business is already in place. They’d be happier (and have much less work to do ruining their economy even further), we’d be happier (trust me, we would), and my guess is the French would just swoon over Obama.

And he’s about right for them – they’ve always believed in style over substance, always thought more of themselves than others have and always had a sense of hubris which never equaled their performance.

It’s freakin’ perfect.

Why didn’t we think of this before?

~McQ