Free Markets, Free People

capitalism

The Lure Of Price Controls

It is a dream all central planners have – the ability to change the laws of economics to the extent that the planner can decide on what a “fair price” might be and market dynamics will adjust themselves to the price and all will be unicorns and rainbows.

Of course we know from our experience with that application in various areas that the market doesn’t adjust to price and it is never unicorns and rainbows when price controls are applied. In fact price controls consistently spawn pretty predictable market reactions and, depending on how vast the price controls are, have the ability to bring down whole economies, or at least put them into a shambles. The latest price control paradise is Zimbabwe where a wheelbarrow full of Zimbabwean currency may be enough to buy an egg in the morning but not in the afternoon.

I bring this up because there’s a growing call for lawmakers to consider price controls for health care insurance, as demonstrated yesterday in the LA Times.

In the drive to bring health coverage to almost every American, lawmakers have largely rejected restrictions on how much insurers can charge, sparking fears that consumers will continue to face the skyrocketing premium increases of recent years.

The legislators’ reluctance to control premium costs comes despite the fact that they intend to require virtually all Americans to get health insurance, an unprecedented mandate — long sought by insurance companies — that would mark the first time the federal government has compelled consumers to buy a single industry’s product, effectively creating a captive market.

Nancy Pelosi has articulated the price control “dream” for health insurance – “a cap on what you pay and no limit on what you get back” if I recall correctly. Of course what she doesn’t say is not even Medicare does that and it has about 43 trillion in unfunded liabilities at this point. But understand that at the bottom of Pelosi’s statement is the reality of imposing price controls – you can’t have a “cap” on what you pay without them.

Thomas Sowell touches on the real intent that sort of Pelosi-talk:

Liberals especially tend to think up all sorts of good things we want — a “living wage,” “affordable housing,” “universal health care,” and an ever-expanding wish-list of things that everyone should receive as “rights” — with little or no awareness of the economic repercussions of turning that wish list into laws.

He then provides a little primer about price control:

Prices are perhaps the most misunderstood thing in economics. Whenever prices are “too high” — whether these are prices of medicines or of gasoline or all sorts of other things — many people think the answer is for the government to force those prices down.

[…]

Prices are not just arbitrary numbers plucked out of the air or numbers dependent on whether sellers are “greedy” or not. In the competition of the marketplace, prices are signals that convey underlying realities about relative scarcities and relative costs of production.

Those underlying realities are not changed in the slightest by price controls. You might as well try to deal with someone’s fever by putting the thermometer in cold water to lower the reading.

What most who believe they can thwart the laws of economics and use price controls never seem to understand is that economic law requires the price mechanism in order to properly allocate goods. Without it, some other mechanism must take its place. Those are usually found in forms of evasion. One evasion is deterioration of quality. The old saw “you get what you pay for” is never more true than under price controls. The time allocated to a doctor visit might get shorter and shorter in order for the doctor to see enough patients to meet his and his practice’s financial needs. That could also mean he can’t afford the newest equipment or diagnostic tools. Consider what price controls would mean to a pharmaceutical company and its incentive to create new and better drugs.  Or a medical implements company, etc.

Another evasion may be alternate markets – you pay a physician a yearly fee and don’t use the price controlled system in place – that has already begun in anticipation of this.  Doctor’s networks are springing up all over the country. Of course with a mandatory insurance requirement, you’d still have to pay into the price controlled system. But that sort of evasion takes doctors out of the price controlled market and creates another shortage with which that market has to contend.

And, of course, there’s queuing. If the price imposed is low, the tendency for those paying is to use it more frequently. There’s no penalty for doing so. That leads to a shortage (in the case of medicine, doctors still only have 24 hours in a day and can still see only a finite number of patients during that time) of available appointments and thus it extends the time before you can see a physician.

Some would call these “unintended consequences” of price controls. But they’re certainly not unknown consequences. They’re consequences on display all over the world in systems which do, in fact, impose such price controls.

Sowell concludes:

Costs don’t go away because you refuse to pay them, any more than gravity goes away if you refuse to acknowledge it. You usually pay more in different ways, through taxes as well as prices, and by deterioration in quality when political processes replace economic process.

But the lure of the free lunch goes on.

With the same disastrous results it has always had.  Yet our would-be central planners seem obvious to the fact.  That’s one reason government debt is at the horrendous level it is today and headed for even higher levels.

~McQ

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Poor Joe …

Michael Moore has a post on his blog from someone named John Gray entitled, “A Day In The Life Of Joe Middle-Class Republican” in which Gray attempts to make the point that all good things we enjoy in life flow from government and liberals. It begins like this:

Joe gets up at 6:00am to prepare his morning coffee. He fills his pot full of good clean drinking water because some liberal fought for minimum water quality standards. He takes his daily medication with his first swallow of coffee. His medications are safe to take because some liberal fought to insure their safety and work as advertised.

All but $10.00 of his medications are paid for by his employers medical plan because some liberal union workers fought their employers for paid medical insurance, now Joe gets it too. He prepares his morning breakfast, bacon and eggs this day. Joe’s bacon is safe to eat because some liberal fought for laws to regulate the meat packing industry.

And so on. Gil Guillory answers Gray’s assertions in a comment at the Mises blog:

Joe gets up at 6:00am to prepare his morning coffee. He makes it with a machine he could not possibly have made himself. He does not know where it was made, or how it works, and may not care. He does not know the people that planted, cultivated, harvested, dried, roasted, packaged, freighted, warehoused, distributed, marketed, or retailed his coffee, and may not care. The company that insures the manufacturer of the coffee machine required that it meet certain safety guidelines, as established by the private insurance-company-funded Underwriters Laboratory. Joe has seen the UL mark, but is not really sure what it’s for or how it protects him. He doesn’t clearly understand why greedy businessmen might be interested in a safe product. All of this was made possible by libertarians who fought for and won the legal right to free trade.

He fills his pot full of good clean drinking water which he bought from Ozarka, because the local government monopoly of water supply bears the comforting designation of “accepted” and also tastes funny.

Sam Bostap also answers the post:

Joe gets up at 6 a.m. and fills his coffeepot with bottled water because he knows that the municipal water system supplies water that occasionally has e coli and other natural organisms that will make him ill–after all his mother died from drinking water that was polluted by sewage after a heavy rain. Joe tried to sue, but was told that the city had sovereign immunity from such suits as a result of state law. If the water he pours from the bottle he bought at Safeway is polluted, he knows he can sue the manufacturer and collect big, so he feels pretty sure that it’s clean.

Joe grinds his coffee beans carefully because they’re very expensive as a result of the U.S. government-enforced international coffee cartel that exists to protect the jobs of coffee importers–heavy campaign contributers to Congress. He’s also careful about how much sugar he puts in his coffee because it costs seven times the world price of sugar as a result of the U.S. government imposed import restrictions on sugar to protect the domestic sugar beet and sugar cane industry.

I don’t think you’d have to guess very hard to know who I think wins this little battle of the Joes. But I don’t think all the bases have been covered in the two parodies of Gray’s original post.

Your additions to the reasons for Joe’s quality of life are solicited.

~McQ

Pontiff Pontificates On Economics … Badly

When it comes to economics, the Pope should stick to poping. While it’s not uncommon for the papacy to issue decrees and opinions vaguely in line with common socialist principles (e.g. love thy neighbor, etc.), it is somewhat rare for the Pope to outright call for one-world government:

Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday called for a radical rethinking of the global economy, criticizing a growing divide between rich and poor and urging the establishment of a “world political authority” to oversee the economy and work for the “common good.”

He criticized the current economic system, “where the pernicious effects of sin are evident,” and urged financiers in particular to “rediscover the genuinely ethical foundation of their activity.”

He also called for “greater social responsibility” on the part of business. “Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty,” Benedict wrote in his new encyclical, which the Vatican released on Tuesday.

I wonder what happened to leave to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s? Or how about that whole concept of “free will”; you know the very basis and foundation of our religious “faith” (which, of course, can only come from choice and not from force)? That seems to be under indictment with Pope Benedict’s latest encyclical.

Leaving aside world governance for the moment, the Pope really goes off the rails when he gets into economic policy. For example, at one point he decries “globalization” and “outsourcing” as little more than the rich preying on the poor:

Indeed, sometimes Benedict sounds like an old-school European socialist, lamenting the decline of the social welfare state and praising the “importance” of labor unions to protect workers. Without stable work, he notes, people lose hope and tend not to get married and have children.

But he also wrote that “The so-called outsourcing of production can weaken the company’s sense of responsibility towards the stakeholders — namely the workers, the suppliers, the consumers, the natural environment and broader society — in favor of the shareholders.”

In short, managers should run their companies for the benefit of those who whine about the common good rather than for those who actually paid for the company (i.e. the shareholders). I’m guessing this is the “squeaky wheel” part of the sermon.

Yet, while outsourcing is deemed “bad”, the Pope also laments that poor countries aren’t better taken care of by richer ones. Towards that end

Benedict also called for a reform of the United Nations so that there could be a unified “global political body” that allowed the less powerful of the earth to have a voice, and he called on rich nations to help less fortunate ones.

“In the search for solutions to the current economic crisis, development aid for poor countries must be considered a valid means of creating wealth for all,” he wrote.

Except for the fact that “development aid” is not wealth. Wealth is created through productivity, not handouts. Indeed, the surest and simplest way to aid development in poor countries to give them jobs … a.k.a “outsourcing.” Doesn’t that whole give a man a fish/teach a man to fish thing ring any bells, your Holiness? Moreover, the more things like outsourcing happen, then the greater wealth there is in the world, and the more work/wealth/happiness there is for everyone to enjoy. Again, I’m pretty sure that was something about loaves and fishes in the Bible that would help illustrate this point.

So much for Papal infallibility.

Just to be clear, I say all of this as a practicing Catholic who is raising his own children in the same tradition. I have great respect for the Pontif when it comes to matters of the spirit. I just wish he’d leave the day-to-day management to the rest of us.

Socialism In America

Perhaps the time has come to be perfectly frank. We Americans live in a socialist country. In point of fact, we have for quite some time, even though private property has a long, continuing and still revered position in our society. To be sure, we aren’t an entirely socialist country, but instead a mixed one that teeters between the two extremes of collectivism and freedom (i.e. socialism and capitalism). In the past century or so, however, the scale tipped noticeably toward the socialism side, and we are now at the point where capitalism is not the dominant force. Of course, there are many who will disagree with my assessment.

Conor Clarke, for example, offers the following to dispel notions that we have become a socialist country:

Government vs. Private Ownership

Government vs. Private Ownership

Conor explains:

Have you heard that the United States is headed toward socialism? Jonah Goldberg says it is. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby says it is. Phyllis Schlafly says it is. Richard Viguerie says it is. The Republican National Committee says it is. We must be getting pretty close.

[…]

The hot-pink portion of this pie chart is the percentage of listed American business assets that have recently been nationalized by the American government (ie, General Motors). Obama’s version of socialism is so sneaky you can hardly see it!

(And there is some reason to think this actually overstates the portion of the corporate landscape that’s been nationalized, but more on that at the end of the post.*)

While the chart above would appear at first glance to be pretty dispositive of the issue (if the federal government owns so little, can we really be socialist?), it actually begs a huge question. If the segment of the economy effectively nationalized in the past several months is so vanishingly small, why is it necessary for taxpayers to fund trillions of dollars to save it? We’ll come back to that.

Next, Jon Henke observes:

NOTE: The fact is, American has always had a mixed economy, as do all modern, developed economies. The question is not one of category – capitalism or socialism? – but of degree.

[…]

Obama is not socialist. But he is more comfortable with centralizing economic power. As that centralization proceeds, the focus of public interest will shift from “how do we fix the immediate economic problems?” to “how do we fix the problems we created when we tried to fix that temporary problem?” That is when the pendulum can swing back towards decentralization and individual empowerment.

Jon takes a more organic view of the subject. That is, he posits the governing structure of the US as subject to the tolerance of the polity for centralized control of the economy. In his view, just because Obama “is more comfortable with centralizing economic power” that does not mean that we have become a socialist nation. Instead, we are merely experiencing a swing of the political pendulum towards socialism that will inevitably swing back towards the capitalism node. Left unsaid is how often that pendulum has swung away from socialism in the past 100+ years. More importantly, Jon’s assertions beg their own question — i.e. how “comfortable” must a politician and/or the populace be with centralized power before we can safely label it socialism?

In addition to the above, another line of argument is sure to be made (if it hasn’t been already) that we cannot possibly be a socialist country because private property has not been outlawed and the people as a whole do not own and control the means of production. Truly, this is the argument that Conor attempts to support with his graph (not that Conor necessarily agrees with that argument, just that he is holding up evidence that would tend to suggest socialism is not at hand). Essentially, although socialism comes in many forms, a primary ingredient is that the state (on behalf of the people) have dominance over the means of production instead of private concerns. The most extreme form, of course, is where all private property is abolished and the state decides what will be produced, by who, when and how much. Much milder versions such as social democracy exist today that, while they allow private property and much more freedom than, say, Stalinist North Korea, maintain a firm grip over the economy as a whole. Is there any doubt that Germany is a socialist country for example? The question then is, where does America fit when it this spectrum of socialist possibilities, if it fits at all?

At bottom, the problem with these sorts of arguments is almost always definitional. If I start arguing that communism never works and use the Soviet Union as an example, someone is sure to pipe up “that wasn’t real communism” followed by a neat explanation how Lenin and Stalin perverted what the true communists wanted in order to seize power for their own means. In order to avoid that annoyance, let’s at least agree on the dictionary definition of socialism:

An economic system in which the production and distribution of goods are [owned and] controlled substantially by the government rather than by private enterprise, and in which cooperation rather than competition guides economic activity. There are many varieties of socialism. Some socialists tolerate capitalism, as long as the government maintains the dominant influence over the economy; others insist on an abolition of private enterprise. All communists are socialists, but not all socialists are communists.

The definition above comes from the The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition, and I think sums up the idea nicely. The one thing missing is the word “ownership” which, I expect, someone will insist upon, so I’ve inserted the words “owned and” into the definition. As luck would have it, this is the very concept that I think is missed by almost everyone who discusses whether or not we are a socialist country.

Specifically, what is the difference between ownership and control? Looking again to the dictionary, here is a good legal definition of “ownership”:

“one’s exclusive right of possessing, enjoying, and disposing of a thing.” 72 So. 891. The term has been given a wide range of meanings, but is often said to comprehend both the concept of possession and, further, that of title and thus to be broader than either. See 139 N.W. 101. See fee simple.

The primary concept behind ownership is that of exclusivity, such that if I own real property, for example, I can by right exclude all others. Without the ability to exclude, my “ownership” is something less than complete and the use, enjoyment and alienation (a fancy word for selling, trading or giving away) of property is limited.

To illustrate the idea, consider that you own a piece of real property (Blackacre) which is rich with gold and silver mines, oil, and an abundance of flora and fauna. In short, it is a little slice of heaven and it is all yours. Or at least it would be if were not for the fact that the flora are mostly designated as protected, the fauna are all listed as endangered, and the mineral deposits are tightly regulated, all to the extent that you cannot make any real use of your land except to look at it from a neighbor’s yard in humble admiration for its splendor. Not only are you prevented from drilling or mining on your property, you cannot even build a house or structure of any kind because that might disturb the protected species. The rules and regulations governing Blackacre are so ominous, that you can’t even sell it without first offering it to the government for a price it will set in its own arbitrary discretion. Furthermore, just on the other side of Blackacre is the Pacific Ocean fronted by a lovely beach, to which the law declares access must be allowed for the public, and there is nothing you can do to prevent them from traipsing across your wonderland. In short, you may own Blackacre in title, but you have very little, if any, control.

Of course, at least here in America, the laws and regulations aren’t quite that strict. And the vast majority of people would agree to at least some controls over private property to prevent the owners from harming other property or people (e.g. pollution, building setbacks to prevent fire, etc.)[ed. – let’s ignore Coasean bargaining for now, shall we?]. At some point, however, those restrictions on the owner’s use become so burdensome as to effectively deprive the owner of any real control. The same can be said for the ownership of capital, which can be anything from money to a large factory for building tractors. When the government sets up enough rules and regulations affecting the use and enjoyment of that capital, the fact that ownership is nominally in private hands does not somehow render that government as something other than socialist.

Now, getting back to our definition of socialism, which is more important, “ownership” or “control”? To my mind, this isn’t even a close call. Without control, ownership is next to meaningless. Therefore, if the state has the ability to control the means of production (a.k.a. capital), whether directly through ownership, or indirectly through law and regulation, I contend that such state should be deemed socialist.

Think of a scale that measures the owner’s rights in her own property and how, with each new government missive, that ownership indication drops a little more. Where the state’s intervention becomes intolerable will be different for each person, but from a definitional standpoint, that intervention represents socialism. When the scale registers a significant enough intervention into the owner’s rights, socialism becomes the prevalent factor in the control of property, and private, capitalist “ownership” is either dulled or altogether neutered. Again, without the ability to control that capital, ownership is a meaningless concept that should be left out of the conversation.

Accordingly, when Conor suggests that we are not a socialist nation because the government only owns an almost immeasurable portion of the corporate assets of this country, I suggest that he use a new measurement. Specifically, one that measures the amount of control that “owners” have over their property/capital/etc. That graph would look significantly different in my estimation.

Furthermore, when Jon states that Obama is not a socialist, he’s just comfortable with centralizing economic power, I ask that he consider what ways centralizing power (i.e. control over the means of production) is not socialist, and that he provide a few examples for clarification. Also, if the pendulum is going to swing back towards more decentralization (i.e. less control over capital), how far back would it have to go before most people could be reasonably certain that we are not, in fact, a socialist nation? How far back does he think it would have to go, or is his contention that the pendulum simply hasn’t swung into socialist territory? In considering those questions, I’d ask that the concept of control, rather than titular ownership, be the dominant factor in deciding where the state stands vis-à-vis socialism.

As I see it, we’ve been living with socialism in this country for a very long time. The only difference has been one of degree and magnitude. Its pervasiveness has ebbed and flowed over the decades, but American’s tolerance for it has grown substantially, even if many of us don’t like to call the governance we desire “socialism.” Unfortunately, that’s exactly what it is, and it’s only going to become more prevalent and intrusive. After all, why would anyone who is comfortable with centralizing economic power stop it? They’ll just call it something else and move on with asserting they’re control until one day you’ll be gazing longingly at Blackacre from the public beach, because that’s the only place where you can legally see it.

Japanese “Lost Decade” Redux

It certainly seems like it. Reason magazine finds the current way the US is addressing the economic crises to be pretty familiar:

The scenario was eerily familiar. A long real estate bubble that had expanded extra rapidly for the previous five years suddenly burst, and asset prices came crashing back down to earth. Banks and financial institutions were left holding piles of worthless paper, and the economy soon headed south. The national government responded to the crisis by encouraging more lending and spending previously unfathomable amounts of money on public works projects in an effort to stimulate consumer spending and restart growth.

Of course that’s where we are now and what that led too in Japan has come to be known as the “lost decade” (now three decades old).

One of the things we’ve pointed out is there is an element within this model that both Japan and now the US has used that is focused on “pain avoidance” (GM and Chrysler are prefect examples of that). Part of that is driven by the belief by those in power that the government can address problems within markets and lessen the impact. The second part of that, of course, is by convincing the public that’s the case, they then have to try to do what they claim they can do. But the law of unintended consequences has a bad habit of pushing its way into such situations and turning them sour:

The Japanese experience shows that when the government is an active participant in the market, many firms would rather accept state support than initiate the inevitable financial reckoning. Such a status quo does not provide a sustainable foundation for the economy. Instead, it restricts economic growth and creates a cycle of stagnation.

A friend, talking about the recession and eventual recovery, said that we’ll come out of it “okay” because “Americans are neurotically productive”. True. But so are the Japanese. While we have a fantastic workforce which is among the most productive in the world, even they won’t be able to overcome restricted economic growth caused by the government’s deep intrusion into various markets.

Comparing Japan’s reaction to the US reaction in similar circumstances is instructive:

When a recession began to set in after the 1990 stock market crash, Japan responded by reversing its tight money policy, cutting rates to 4.5 percent in 1991, 3.25 percent in 1992, 1.75 percent from 1993 to 1994, 0.5 percent from 1995 to 2000, and as low as 0.1 percent in September 2001.

A similar pattern took place in the United States. From 2000 to 2002, the Federal Reserve slashed the target discount rate from 6 percent to 0.75 percent. Fearing irrational exuberance, to borrow Alan Greenspan’s famous phrase, the Fed then raised the rate as high as 6.25 percent in June 2006. But now that the bubble has burst and the economy contracted, the Fed has cut the discount rate 12 times, lowering it to the current 0.5 percent. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has repeatedly stated that he sees interest rate cuts as a way to “support growth and to provide adequate insurance against downside risks.”

In both the Japanese and the American cases, post-bubble policy makers believed that lowering interest rates would make credit easier to obtain, thus recreating the environment that had spurred economic growth to begin with. But this meant that the supposed cure for a bubble created by easy credit was to extend even more easy credit.

These rate cuts only perpetuated the distortion of economic decisions and prevented savings, investment, and consumption from realigning with true preferences, as opposed to the illusory ones created by easy credit and artificially low interest rates. The lesson is that when monetary policy is used to “smooth” or “tweak” the market, it inevitably causes unintended consequences that in some cases can be very damaging to long-term economic growth.

Of course it is hard to say what future growth might be had the US government not done what it has done. But again, using Japan of that era vs. the US of that era, the difference is between 1.3% growth on average vs. 3.5% growth here. In economic terms that is a huge difference.

Reason also does a nice job of dismantling the “failure of regulation” argument. As they point out, what must be examined is how the regulatory environment then in place spawned the crisis vs. the claim that not enough regulation was in place.

For instance, government housing policy of the era:

The push to expand homeownership had two big effects. First, it greatly increased the number of buyers, driving up housing prices. Second, it provided mortgages to a large number of people who had a high risk of default.

That policy was further enabled by the capital reserve requirements which, in effect, encouraged heavy lending and an insensitivity to risk. Instead of admitting that and understanding that such policies are dangerous, the reaction has mostly been to ignore that and shift the blame to the private sector with calls for “more regulation”.

And then, going back to the “pain avoidance” point (justified as “too big to fail” by the government), what has happened is, as in the case of GM and Chrysler before the bankruptcies, government propping up failed businesses:

The Bank of Japan tried to ease economic pain by loaning large amounts to businesses. But the attempts to recapitalize the market ignored underlying management problems in the dying firms. It was a costly mistake. Intense lobbying from special-interest groups representing various sectors of the Japanese economy perpetuated the ill-fated loans and funneled government money to zombie businesses.

The United States has already begun to copy this policy, lending billions of dollars to financial institutions and auto companies and buying up billions more in bank equity in an effort to recapitalize the marketplace. The effect has been to keep poorly managed firms alive with taxpayer money.

Had they been allowed to fail and go through the reorganization process, those problems would have at least been addressed. They haven’t, at this point, in most of the financial sector and in the auto sector, it remains to be seen.

Of course the government’s deep involvement in these sectors and businesses sets up a natural conflict of interests. While a business is market oriented, and takes signals from consumers, governments are agenda driven and politically oriented. And it then comes down to a matter of incentives. In the first case the incentive of a business is to serve its consumer base. But that’s not the case with politicians necessarily, is it?

Lawmakers’ incentives are to serve their constituencies or their own political careers. This can put them at odds with the businesses they are suddenly attempting to manage. The more the government is involved in directing business activity, the less likely those firms will succeed in maintaining long-term growth, and the more likely they will turn into Japanese-style zombies.

While we’d like to believe that lawmaker’s constituencies consist of the people in their state or district, in reality they consist of special interests who help keep them in office. The ability to deliver to those special interests and keep their support and dollars flowing is just to much to resist for most.

Additionally:

Studies from Okimoto’s center and the Bank of Japan concluded that data revealing the scope of the economic malaise were suppressed and that regulations were developed with governmental interests in mind.

Given how the discussion has been driven here by the likes of Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, there’s little doubt that regulations will be “developed with governmental interests in mind”.

In reality it all comes down to power, or the illusion of power, and politics. Short-term politics with no real eye on the future impact of actions taken today. And these actions are based in a false premise that the market is not self-correcting and that it must be both controlled and tweaked by government.

Japan bought into that premise, and so has the US:

The principle of creative destruction—the economic mutation that continuously breaks down old forms and creates newer, more productive and efficient ones—was ignored in the hope that legacy corporations could somehow save Japan. From Wall Street to Detroit, under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the American government has been equally unwilling to let once-formidable companies fail.

And that, in my opinion, will see us repeat the Japanese experience, despite the small glimmers of hope we’ve been seeing in the reports in recent days. This isn’t about short term increases in home sales and construction spending. This is about the long term economic health of our economy.

Unsurprisingly, I’m not seeing moves by the government that work toward the most positive outcome in that regard.

~McQ

GM To Be “Chryslered”

I hesitate to call it bankruptcy when it is really a sham of a bankruptcy. In fact, it is the same sham that Chrysler has undergone:

The government previously indicated that it planned to take at least 50 percent of the restructured company, and likely would take the right to name members to its board of directors, as it has at Chrysler, where the government will control four of nine seats.

The United Auto Workers retiree health fund is set to own as much as 39 percent of the restructured GM, in exchange for giving up its claim to at least $10 billion that the company owes it. Yesterday, the union announced that it reached an agreement with GM that will reduce the company’s labor costs.

Still unknown is what part the Canadian government might play in the ongoing GM restructuring.

GM operates several plants north of the border. The Canadians agreed to invest about $3.5 billion in the Chrysler restructuring and control one of the nine board seats.

Sound familiar? So government will now have 5 of 9 board seats, the union has a huge share of the company and bondholders?

The chief obstacle to an out-of-court settlement for GM remains: There has been no agreement between the company and the investors who hold $27 billion worth of GM bonds.

Under orders from the Obama administration, GM has offered to give the bondholders a 10 percent equity stake in the restructured company in exchange for giving up their bonds.

That’s the offer made and, as you might imagine, bondholders are resisting this. That, of course, gives the administration the same excuse it used to take Chrysler to bankruptcy under its apparently newly written rules which gave government the lion’s share of ownership.

As you might imagine, not everyone is happy. And since this “bankruptcy” is now being politically managed, more politicians are getting into the act.

For instance, on the subject of cutting Chrysler dealerships:

There are also challenges outside court. Chrysler has moved to close 789 dealerships on June 9. But Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) has introduced legislation that would withhold federal funding if the automaker does not give dealers an extra 60 days to close down operations and sell remaining inventory. Her amendment has won the backing of a number of other senators.

Should such legislation pass, you can expect something similar with GM.

And some Democrats aren’t particularly happy either:

Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said he hopes to meet with White House officials today to discuss changing Chrysler’s bankruptcy plan and GM’s future. Conyers did not outline what he wanted, but a nine-person panel he assembled for a hearing yesterday offered a hint. Liberal consumer advocate Ralph Nader, a conservative Heritage Foundation analyst and minority auto dealers all criticized the automakers’ restructuring.

Conyers and other committee members attacked the administration for abusing bankruptcy laws, unfairly eliminating dealerships and jeopardizing consumer safety.

Yup, looks like the political bureaucracy is kicking into high-gear and you can just imagine how well this is going to work out, can’t you? That and the fact that contracts will never be viewed in the same light again have to make you fear for our economic future.

How To Kill An Economic Recovery

Hugo Chávez is in the news again, appropriating and nationalizing more of the oil industry in his country.

That sort of move by him has become so routine that it almost isn’t news anymore. But this particular sentence caught my eye and reminded me of what we’ve seen here as well:

This move forms part of a broader assault against the private sector, which Mr Chávez has increasingly blamed as Venezuela slides into recession.

Vilification is a political tactic in use by a certain type of politician, and anyone paying attention to what has been going on in this country has seen it deployed in earnest against the wealthy and certain industry sectors in the US in the last few months. The health care industry is next. And, as in Venezuela, the government is being offered as the best alternative. Yet watching Venezuela, most understand the ramifications of moves such as Chavez is making on the long-term viability of Venezuela’s economy:

But analysts say that by shifting its problems onto its suppliers, PDVSA is storing up even bigger problems for the future. Not only does it lack the ability to operate as efficiently as the service providers, but it sends a grim signal to companies considering investing in Venezuela. Consequently, future oil production is under threat.

While the moves taking place here aren’t as drastic as those in Venezuela, they’re just as problematic. Government appointed board members on auto company boards and government calling the shots in the financial sector aren’t direct takeovers, but they portend a level of government meddling unseen here before. And health care and energy are next.

The key word in the quoted paragraph above is “investing”. Investors are very wary about both the auto and financial industries at this point. They’re wary of the auto industry because government is essentially throwing the bankruptcy procedures out of the window and those investors which should be guaranteed the first seat at the table for the recovery of their investment are now being vilified as “greedy” and pushed to the side. Any reason they or any other investor should take a monetary stake in either of the government controlled auto companies again? And given the experience with autos, don’t you suppose investors in the financial sector are having second thoughts?

Investment is the road to recovery in recessionary times. The moves Hugo Chávez is making in Venezuela are exactly the wrong moves in terms of economic recovery (not to mention being a complete violation of property rights). While not as drastic as Chávez, the moves the Obama administration have made are sending a similar signal to investors.  And that doesn’t bode well for a swift economic recovery.

Health care and energy are next.

~McQ

This Is “Rich”

I‘m still amazed that many people who put their support behind Obama in the presidential election, are suddenly discovering things about him they don’t like.

Really? Now they discover Obama is a class warrior? It comes as no surprise for those of us who took the time to assess where he came from and what (little) he’d done.

Suddenly, the rich are concerned that the guy they backed may not be what they hoped he was (notice that’s the correct context in which “hope” should be used when “hope and change” is spoken):

Some of Barack Obama’s richest supporters fear they have elected a “class warrior” to the White House, who will turn America’s freewheeling capitalism into a more regulated European system

Ya think? What was your first clue – his remarks about “spreading the wealth” to Joe the Plumber or the thousands of other things he said which might imply such a tendency?

And as an aside, America’s capitalism is about as “freewheeling” as a modern waterslide is “death defying”.

Chris Edwards of the Cato Institute, a free enterprise think tank, said Democrats in Congress were unnerved by the president’s latest plan to raise $210 billion over 10 years from multinational corporations.

The money is needed to pay for a national debt that will double over the next five years; and triple over the next 10 years to $17.3 trillion. But the crackdown already faces fierce Democratic resistance.

“These big companies are based in New York Boston, Seattle and Silicon Valley, where Democrats dominate,” Mr Edwards said. “Obama’s tax plan is already cleaving him from his big corporate supporters,” he said.

The good news in this, of course, is that Congress has to pass the legislation that enables this, and per Edwards, they’re getting cold feet. The reason is also obvious – any “cleaving” of Obama from “big corporate sponsors” also means the rest of the Democrats suffer the same fate.

The level of taxation necessary to pay for the profligate spending now taking place will have to be massive as anyone with a 5th grade education understands. But the Dems also understand that any taxation that takes place must be other than income taxes because it is important to maintain the mirage that “95% of all Americans” are getting tax cuts. That leaves “the rich”, corporations and smoke and mirrors.

The rich have been identified ($250k or more), corporations are on the block with much higher taxation in the offing. So the investor class and the engine of the economy are under assault. The smoke and mirrors show? Wait until health care and cap and tax trade hit. 100% of Americans will be paying large sums for both.

But back to the point – the deeper we get into the Obama administration, the more we come to understand how gullible a good portion of the American public appears to be. There is a certain level of satisfaction with the buyer’s remorse being seen among many of his supporters as they see what their vote has actually bought. I sure hope they don’t shop for other important items as badly as they apparently shop for presidents.

~McQ

Car Czar Thuggery (Updated)

rattner

Steven Rattner, the Obama administration’s “Car Czar,” was recently accused of acting, well, rather czar-ishly by White & Case attorney Tom Lauria. Those accusations were later corroborated by others privy to the meetings. Now comes a rather disturbing (and presently unsubstantiated) account of exactly what was said1:

Confronting the head of a non-TARP fund holding Chrysler debt and unwilling to release it for any sum less than that to which it was legally entitled without compelling cause, this country’s “Car Czar” berated the manager of said fund with an outburst of prose substantially resembling this:

Who the f*** do you think you’re dealing with? We’ll have the IRS audit your fund. Every one of your employees. Your investors. Then we will have the Securities and Exchange Commission rip through your books looking for anything and everything and nothing we find to destroy you with.

Faced with these sorts of threats, in this environment, with valued employees in the crosshairs and AIG a fresh, open wound upon the market, the fund folded.

Keep in mind that the non-TARP creditors in the bankruptcy have been forced to lump their fates in with the TARP recipients (emphasis added):

As of last night’s deadline, we were part of a group of approximately 20 relatively small organizations; we represent many of the country’s teachers unions, major pension and retirement plans and school endowments who have invested through us in senior secured loans to Chrysler. Combined, these loans total about $1 billion. None of us have taken a dime in TARP money.

As much as anyone, we want to see Chrysler emerge from its current situation as a viable American company, and we are committed to doing what we can to help. Indeed, we have made significant concessions toward this end — although we have been systematically precluded from engaging in direct discussions or negotiations with the government; instead, we have been forced to communicate through an obviously conflicted intermediary: a group of banks that have received billions of TARP funds.

Rattner’s alleged threats should give everyone some pause. Is it really the case that private companies will be forced to do the President’s bidding or face the full brunt of the state’s police power? Because that’s exactly what’s being alleged. I share the concern of the reporter of Rattner’s comments in that I certainly hope the accusations are inaccurate/misstated/outrageously untrue.

It is my deepest wish at this point that there is nothing about this latest bit of Car Czar thuggery even remotely based in fact- as this would mean that this country has truly and unarguably descended into fascism.

I use this term, “fascism,” quite deliberately. I also use it well aware that many will consider it needlessly inflammatory. Be this as it may, I submit there is simply no other term that properly describes the style and tenor of government emerging both in public and behind once closed doors.

The corporatist model — i.e. where unelected government officials and industry “leaders” fashion economic policy for the benefit of the state as whole, and in complete disregard of, and often quite hostile to, individual liberty — has never died, and is used more often than you might think (e.g. in the creation of energy policy, environmental policy, financial market rules, etc.), albeit in less radical form. That does not mean that Jews or any other disfavored groups will be marched off to concentration camps (opponents of gay marriage not named “Barack” can be forgiven for thinking otherwise). But it does mean that the preconditions necessary to ease the way for totalitarian control are already present. If enough people buy the “myth” presented by those in charge, then more and more power will eventually be ceded to a central authority, who will then have the ability to steamroll any opponents to the collective will. The accusations presented above suggest that Rattner (and one has to presume Pres. Obama), believes that enough Americans have bought the myth as to allow for such bullying. If so, that is a truly disturbing thought to contemplate.

UPDATE: In an article at the WSJ essentially chiding the MSM for failing to dig into this story, Tom Blumer notes the following (my emphasis):

The New York Times, in a report by Michael J. de la Merced and Jonathan D. Glater, does note the threats and Gonzales’s ruling, and has the following at its second-last paragraph.

When the debtholders, calling themselves the Committee of Non-TARP Lenders, made their first public statement last Thursday, they said their group consisted of about 20 investment firms holding about $1 billion. According to their motion to file under seal, the group now claims about $300 million in holdings.

de la Merced and Glater were apparently not curious about the possible reasons why the amount involved, and presumably the number of holders, is significantly lower than it was just a few days ago.

Maybe it’s because the threats are real, guys.

Maybe.

________________________________
1 Edited to make SFW.

TARP as Shakespearean Tragedy

Does it strike anyone else as funny that TARP is a poor anagram for “trap”? If Shakespeare had written this play the name would have been much more clever, of course, but I think he would delight in the barely concealed irony of the federal government drawing banks into its lair with the pretense of saving their hides, only to use the money intended to do so as the means of yoking the industry. I’ll bet the banks who took TARP funds don’t find it so humorous.

Since last October when Hank Paulsen forced nine of the largest banks to take an initial injection of $125 billion in TARP funds (among other bullying), the federal government has committed about $12.2 trillion dollars to bailouts and spent about $2.5 trillion on such efforts (er, among other, other bullying). Aside from an increasing assertion of control over the financial and automotive sectors of our economy (among other, other, other bullying), there is very little to show for all this money. Which leaves the rather stark impression that government control was the goal all along — i.e. the method within the madness.

I must be naive. I really thought the administration would welcome the return of bank bailout money. Some $340 million in TARP cash flowed back this week from four small banks in Louisiana, New York, Indiana and California. This isn’t much when we routinely talk in trillions, but clearly that money has not been wasted or otherwise sunk down Wall Street’s black hole. So why no cheering as the cash comes back?

My answer: The government wants to control the banks, just as it now controls GM and Chrysler, and will surely control the health industry in the not-too-distant future. Keeping them TARP-stuffed is the key to control. And for this intensely political president, mere influence is not enough. The White House wants to tell ’em what to do. Control. Direct. Command.

[…]

Here’s a true story first reported by my Fox News colleague Andrew Napolitano (with the names and some details obscured to prevent retaliation). Under the Bush team a prominent and profitable bank, under threat of a damaging public audit, was forced to accept less than $1 billion of TARP money. The government insisted on buying a new class of preferred stock which gave it a tiny, minority position. The money flowed to the bank. Arguably, back then, the Bush administration was acting for purely economic reasons [ed.: That’s a highly charitable argument]. It wanted to recapitalize the banks to halt a financial panic.

Fast forward to today, and that same bank is begging to give the money back. The chairman offers to write a check, now, with interest. He’s been sitting on the cash for months and has felt the dead hand of government threatening to run his business and dictate pay scales. He sees the writing on the wall and he wants out. But the Obama team says no, since unlike the smaller banks that gave their TARP money back, this bank is far more prominent. The bank has also been threatened with “adverse” consequences if its chairman persists. That’s politics talking, not economics.

Think about it: If Rick Wagoner can be fired and compact cars can be mandated, why can’t a bank with a vault full of TARP money be told where to lend? And since politics drives this administration, why can’t special loans and terms be offered to favored constituents, favored industries, or even favored regions? Our prosperity has never been based on the political allocation of credit — until now.

Despite the government’s bullying, it is difficult to feel much pity for the institutions who accepted TARP funds. Surely they must have at least suspected an iron hand inside that velvet glove attempting to feed them. However, if they truly don’t need the money, and have the means to pay it back, then onerous seems too slight a word to express how gripping the government’s control has become:

Financial firms eager to return infusions from the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program will have to demonstrate that they can operate without debt guarantees provided by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., a senior government official said Tuesday. The FDIC program allows financial institutions to borrow money at lower costs.

The new requirement will make it harder for some institutions to get out from under government rules attached to the bailouts, another shift in a changing landscape for banks. It also illustrates the government’s desire not to have banks abandon the bailout program if they are not financially prepared to do so.

The government’s desire? I don’t recall exactly where that is accounted for in the Constitution. Is it buried somewhere in the penumbras and emanations of the commerce clause? Clearly the “government’s desire” must have some force of law that it can unilaterally decide to allow banks to sink or swim on their own. Otherwise, such desire is wholly irrelevant.

Nonetheless, banks did take the money, and so the government gets to call the tune. Institutions who would have collapsed absent the bailout have little to grouse about in such circumstances. But other firms, who didn’t need the money in the first place, rightfully bristled at the demands being placed upon them and the opprobrium casually tossed their way by the government.

Kim Price’s Gastonia bank accepted $20 million from the Troubled Asset Relief Program to help keep credit flowing as the economy faltered.

Now the Citizens South Banking Corp. chief executive and other community bankers feel that Congress is treating them like villains.

Proposed new TARP rules that could limit bankers’ pay have upset many bank executives here. And the congressional effort has prompted some banks in other states to give the money back.

Paying back the government (although coming at a pretty price) not only seems like a right the banks should have, it just makes good business sense for the healthy ones:

TCF Financial Corp, a Minnesota lender, said it repaid a $361.2 million capital infusion that it took from the U.S. government’s bank bailout program, becoming the largest recipient to repay its funds.

[…]

Regulators, banks and investors once viewed participation in the program as a positive, figuring that it would help healthy banks lend more and perhaps buy struggling rivals.

But participation is now often viewed as an albatross, subjecting recipients to restrictions on such things as executive pay and dividends.

Investors now consider some banks that hold onto their aid as being too weak to return it. Large banks such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc ( GS – news – people ) and JPMorgan Chase ( JPM – news – people ) & Co have said they want to repay their aid soon.

TCF Chief Executive William Cooper this week said holding TARP money put the bank at a “competitive disadvantage.”

He said repaying the aid and eliminating the associated dividend payments will boost earnings by more than 14 cents per share annually.

By inducing banks to take TARP money, whether through tactics or intimidation, the government has neatly cornered the capital flow of the country. Much like Hamlet surreptitiously forced his uncle to publicly face scorn for his act of regicide (by having performed the “Murder of Gonzago,” aka the “Mouse-Trap”), the government has successfully lured failing banks into the public square for ridicule. Whereas Hamlet sought to elicit a sign of guilt in order to justify his vengeance, however, the government seems intent on effusing guilt throughout the banking industry so as to justify its controlling moves. By tainting the public view of the financial sector, the government seeks to undermine public confidence and build a chorus calling for its heavy-handed involvement. As mentioned above, protestations by the beggars for such action protest too much, methinks, but those who truly have no need of the interference have much cause to cry foul.

Hamlet ends with nearly every character dead, and the country being turned over to its greatest enemy. Unfortunately, the financial sector seems destined for a similar result as the government has made clear it will not allow certain institutions to fail, and is callously indifferent to fate of the unchosen. No matter how well those banks who managed to avoid TARP altogether do, the government is now the major mover in game, and the only one with the power to force its will on all the other players. It can, and will, pass laws that favor the winners its chosen, thus leaving the non-assisted banks out in the cold. In the end, firms who conform to market forces (i.e. respond to the desires of its customers), will be supplanted by those which conform to will of the government’s agenda. The trap was set, the mice did enter, and thus their fates were sealed.