Free Markets, Free People

Economy

So Will The Federal Government Bail Out California?

Is it too big to fail? Megan McArdle believes the possibility certainly exists (I mean was Arnie really in DC yesterday just to see the sights). Says McArdle:

If the government does bail out the muni bond market, how should it go about things? The initial assumption is that they’ll only guarantee existing debt. Otherwise, it would be like handing the keys to the treasury to every mayor, county board, and state legislature, and telling them to go to town.

But once the treasury has bailed out a single state, there will be a strongly implied guarantee on all such debt. So you don’t give them the keys to the vaults, but you do leave a window open, point out where the money’s kept, and casually mention that you’ve given the armed guards the week off.

Of course the right answer is not to bail out either. Failure is a great teacher. And then there’s the moral hazzard angle.

But in this day and age, that’s approach is almost unthinkable apparently. Government, as we’re being told, is the answer to everything.

My fear, based on what the federal government has done to this point, is they’ll “hand the keys to the treasury” on both the muni bond market and the states (with bailouts). They have no business doing anything in either place, but we’ve already seen that the arbitrary assessment that some entity is too big to fail apparently takes priority over economic law.

Once a single state is bailed out, there is nothing to stop other states from making a similar claim on the treasury.

Should such a thing happen in either case (or both), Federalism, which is on its last legs anyway, will be officially dead.

~McQ

Predicted vs. Actual

Here’s an interesting little chart I found at Innocent Bystanders.  The light blue line is the Obama administration’s prediction of how terrible unemployment would be if we didn’t pass the stimulus plan.  The dark blue line is the prediction of how much better things would be we did pass it.  The dark red triangles show the actual unemployment statistics.

The Amazing Effectiveness of Stimulus

The Amazing Effectiveness of Stimulus

So, how’s that recovery plan working out for us?  Not so good, apparently.

I merely provide the chart for informational purposes.  I know it’s useless to make any criticisms of the actual performance of the plan, just as it was useless to predict that this is pretty much what would happen.

Besides, saying, “I told you so”, is so churlish and mean.

Podcast for 10 May 09

In this podcast, Michael, and Dale discuss the county’s failing energy and economic policies.

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.

Energy Policy – “10 Inconvenient Truths”

Sometimes the little surprises life hands you are the most pleasant. While in Houston at the Offshore Technology Conference, my trip sponsored by API, I happened to meet another blogger who introduced himself to me as a “raging liberal”. In the course of three days and a few good beers, Chris Nelder and I had some very enjoyable and interesting conversations. And, interestingly, Chris and I agree on where the policy debate stands as it pertains to energy. Chris wrote an outstanding article detailing his observations about the current situation, and, for the most part, I agree completely with his well thought out assessment. Here is his list of “10 Inconvenient Truths” that he feels all policy makers must understand before they can effectively plan for the future:

1. We have extracted nearly all of the world’s easy, cheap oil and gas, and now we’re getting down to the difficult, expensive stuff. The largest untapped resources that remain are in extreme places like deepwater and the Arctic, and marginal formations like shale. As a result, global oil production has for all intents and purposes peaked. Natural gas production will also peak in 10 to 15 years. Neither technology nor high prices will change that. Therefore we must begin to replace those fuels with renewables, and use what remains much more efficiently, with the expectation that most of the world’s oil and gas will be gone by the end of this century.

While I agree with Chris’s point about renewables, I’m not quite ready to buy into the idea that “most” of the world’s gas and oil will be gone by the end of the century, especially if we make progress developing cheap, renewable and clean alternatives. That’s not to say he might not be right, but I continue to look at the improvements in technology and the fact that the same sort of predictions have been made for decades and here we are. But on the main point of gearing up renewables, we agree completely. We must prepare for the possibility Chris is right and we need to do that now.

2. Drilling for oil and gas drilling in the OCS and ANWR must and will be done; our need for those fuels is simply too great to pass them up. An additional 2-3 mbpd will put a dent in the roughly 12 mbpd we now import, but if we drill for it now, it won’t come to market for 10 years or more. By that time, it probably won’t even compensate for the depletion of conventional oil in North America, nor will it do much to reduce prices. But it will be crucially necessary, and producing it won’t make an ugly mess of the environment.

You see someone on the left here who has studied the problem, understands the processes used and has formed an opinion that is outside his side’s political mainstream. He understands that technology has advanced to the point that the oil and gas industry can drill for oil and gas safely and with a very small footprint. In fact, advances in sub sea technology are almost to the point where the entire process can be safely and productively located under the waves. So, in a “comprehensive” scheme, the left has got to drop its almost knee-jerk resistance to such drilling and understand it must be a part of an overall energy solution.

3. Renewables are clearly the long-term answer, as is an all-electric infrastructure that runs on its clean power. However, it will likely take over 30 years for renewables to ramp up from a less than 2% share of primary energy today to 20% or more. They probably won’t even be able to fill the gap created by the decline of fossil fuels. Oil and gas currently provide about 58% of the world’s primary energy, and they will remain our primary fuels for a long time to come.

To believe “green fuels”/renewables are the immediate and total answer to today’s energy needs is to deny reality. We have to remember that there is going to be a growing energy gap as more and more nations come on-line in the first-world and demand more energy as a result. Oil, gas, nuclear and coal are going to play a large and significant part of bridging that gap even as we work to develop renewables. As a nation we cannot afford that sort of short-sighted thinking. It is critical that everyone understand that while the preference is for renewable, clean fuels, the reality is they’re still quite a ways off, while the energy demand continues to grow unabated and certainly with no concern for our personal energy preferences.

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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

Knee-capping Recovery

Dale makes an incredibly important point about investment below – investors aren’t going to commit their money to industries which are being manipulated by government for political goals and payoffs.

And, the Wall Street Journal makes a similar argument about corporate taxation and the Obama administration’s apparent plan to compound the problem he hopes to “deincentivize” by driving both investors and US companies off shore..

The energy picture is no rosier. Because there is no comprehensive and clear-cut, long-term energy plan from government, and because it is clear to many that the present administration’s plans for energy involve achieving political goals dictated by government vs. a straight market based plan which would see decentralized signals and decisions determine the energy future, investors are sitting on the sidelines. As Sen. Murkowski said, too many in national government today see the energy sector, and especially the oil and gas industry, as an “ATM to pay for other programs”.

When government is so deeply involved in picking winners and losers, investors are not going to invest. Especially given the example of the car and financial industries.

You can guess what that means in terms of economic recovery, not to mention economic growth. Investment is the engine of economic growth. Without it, nothing sustainable happens. Government can make all the make-work jobs in the world, but until investors commit to the economy, we only mark time economically speaking. If anything government should create a climate that provides incentives for private investors – low taxes, favorable investment rules, etc. to encourage investors to risk their money here in the US.

Instead, we have at least three critical areas where government intrusion and manipulation is having exactly the opposite effect.

~McQ

TARP: The Tragedy Deepens

Michael’s post immediately below deserves to be addressed in some more detail.  Not only is the TARP program pernicious to the banking and financial sector, but it’s implications go much deeper than that, and corrupt the rest of the economy as well.  And most importantly, this is only the beginning.

The corruption expresses itself in a number of ways.  Take a look at the GM/Chrysler situation.  In both cases, the UAW emerge as the clear winners in the bankruptcy proceedings.  In the case of GM, bondholders with $27 billion in bonds are supposed to accept 10% of the company’s equity, while the UAW’s retirement fund, which holds $10 billion in bonds, is supposed to receive 40%, with the Government taking the remainder of the equity. In what possible way is this supportable?

Likewise, in the Chrysler bailout, the UAW will receive 55% of the equity, while Chrysler’s bondholders receive 30 cents on the dollar for their $7 billion investment.

OF course, Chryslers bondholders are balking at this, throwing the compnay into banklruptcy court.  Not that that will save them.  Why?  TARP.  As Thomas Cooley explains:

Chrysler’s dissident lenders have on their side the “absolute priority” bankruptcy rule, which holds that value must be distributed according to the legal priorities of the stakeholders.

Unfortunately, the bankruptcy code also holds that the absolute priority rule can be modified if a two-thirds majority can convince the court that it makes legal or business sense. Two-thirds of the lenders can force the holdouts to go along with them in a procedure called a cram-down.

That is exactly what is likely to happen. Citi, JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, all major recipients of TARP Funds, all deep in the pocket of the Treasury, agreed to the administration’s plan.

So, the government, holding TARP over the heads of the banks, can now abrogate the generally used bankruptcy rules, and force through a sweetheart deal for a favored political client, the UAW.  But, in so doing, they enlarge the damage to the country’s economy by sounding a warning that government funds are dangerous because the government’s first priority is to re-write the rules to reward their special friends.  The uncertaintly that creates keeps investors on the sidelines.

Many investors are sitting on the sidelines, as is much money. Why? Because it is impossible to know what the rules of the game are. And that’s because the administration and the Congress keep changing the rules in capricious ways in pursuit of larger political objectives.

Megan McArdle make some of the same points, highlighting the danger inherent in such an approach by the government.

Countries that use their banking systems this way don’t get good results.  If you’re a fairly uncorrupt developed country, you get slower growth and bloated “critical” sectors that are usually more critical in providing campaign support, lavishly remunerated make-work jobs, and photo ops, than any products the public actually wants.  Then, if something like Japan happens, you have a twenty-year “lost decade” while everyone pretends as hard as hard can be that everything is all right, in the sincere but misguided believe [sic] that wishing hard enough will make it so.

One wonders if Ms. McArdle now thinks back on her support of Mr. Obama during the last election as “sincere but misguided”.  But I digress.

IN any event, the government has moved full steam ahead with the approach Ms. McArdle decries.  And it will continue to do so. How do we know this?  because of the way the Chrysler bankruptcy is being handled.

I heard repeatedly from progressives, in the run-up to the bankruptcy case, that the holdouts were unreasonably holding out for a trivial improvement–about 500 million dollars.  But if it was so trivial, why didn’t the government just put the extra money in, rather than jeopardizing confidence in the bankruptcy system–and the creditworthiness of a large swathe of unionized firms?  $500 million is about the price of one cup of coffee per American, a trivial sum relative to the overall budget.  This move has shown potential partners that government funds are dangerous, and potential lenders that union firms are risky bets; both have probably cost American citizens more than they saved.  So why did the government risk so much for so little gain?

You know the answer, don’t you?  Because they’re planning to do it again.

And to the extent they keep doing so, and keeping the financial sector in line via the TARP funds, investors will increasingly keep their money out of the game.  Why should they do otherwise?  Any investment in any entity with any relationship to TARP, either directly, or via creditors, is a target for the government to re-write the rules of investment and bondh0lding to ensure their special friends get a nice cut of the action.

True, it’s hard to have much sympathy for either GM or Chrysler.  But the issue now goes far beyond them.  Cooley, again:

There is at least some poetic justice in this outcome. The unions, whose years of work rules, and pension and health care deals helped sink the company, will have to eat their own cooking from now on. But their future success needs not only labor but capital.

Why would private capital get involved when the rules of the game are so capricious? No one would take that gamble when it is clear that, in dealing with the government, private capital will always take a back seat to politically powerful entities.

And that is the larger worry that current policy has neglected. Firms and markets can function quite well within a framework of rules. Indeed, rules are good for the orderly conduct of business. But when rules get imposed or dispensed with willy-nilly in the interests of politics, it is very dangerous. We have should have learned this lesson long ago.

But, apparently, we didn’t.  Don’t worry, though.  I’m fairly certain we’ll re-learn it in due course.

What really offends me the most in all this is not that the government is acting in the interest of favored clients, although that’s extraordinarily offensive.  That’s what governments do.

I think the thing that offends me the most is the sheer stupidity of the thing.

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.

Reinventing The Flat Tire – Chrysler Set To Try A Variation Of The British Leyland Model

There’s some interesting stuff out there to read about the Chrysler bankruptcy, like people asking “why wasn’t this done in the beginning”?

Simple answer – in the beginning there was no way to secure the UAW a majority stake in the company. Now, as Felix Salmon points out, that’s been accomplished:

The broad outlines of a deal are already clear: Fiat will take a 35% stake in the company and manage it; the UAW will have a 55% stake; and all the government’s TARP funds will be converted into a 10% stake. Present-day creditors do not get equity but rather get cash; the sticking point is exactly how much cash they will get. And of course present-day shareholders — Cerberus and Daimler — are wiped out, and top management will be replaced.

Of course the reason Chrysler is headed into bankruptcy is because all of its bondholders weren’t satisfied with the deal offered through taxpayers money. As you might imagine, Think Progress has the “progressive” spin on the situation:

As Bloomberg reported, “Obama’s team had first offered secured lenders $2 billion for their $6.9 billion in loans, and then raised the offer to $2.25 billion. In a game of chicken, the holdouts asked for $2.5 billion, and Obama’s patience ran out.” Steven Pearlstein put these numbers into perspective:

What you need to know about these vultures is that their idea of fairness is throwing 100,000 people out of work and denying retirees their pensions and their health benefits just so they can liquidate the company and maybe squeeze an extra 15 cents on the dollar from their Chrysler debt. Of course, to get that extra 15 cents, the hedge funds would probably have to fork over a penny or two to pay the army of $700-an-hour lawyers needed to spend two years working it through the bankruptcy process.

The greed factor here is really appalling, but bad intentions can sometimes produce a good result.

The greed factor here certainly is appalling, but not on the part of the group Think Progress would like us to believe is the problem. I mean, how dare secured lenders ask for more money than a paltry 30% of what they lent Chrysler? In the new world of what’s fair, apparently asking for 30% is unfair and greedy. And frankly with an administration which has tossed trillions around like they were beads at Mardi Gras, it seems that somehow $250 million more was just a “bridge too far” when it came to keeping the deal together.

More importantly, what in the hell is the President of the United States doing involved in this sort of process to begin with? Oh, wait, the UAW gets 55% ownership?

Nevermind.

Salmon again:

All of this is necessary but not sufficient for Chrysler to have any hope of a long-term future. One of the more interesting things going forward will be how Chrysler manages to turn itself into a smaller, nimbler, change-oriented company while being majority owned by the UAW — which is nobody’s idea of a change agent. In general, if you need a dose of creative destruction, big unions are not the place to look.

You think? Another wonderful deal put together by the folks who want to run your health care. And yes, I know this isn’t perfectly analogous to the British Leyland situation, but it certainly has some striking similarities. A labor union will most likely have to decide between it’s previous decades of focus and producing cars that people want and can afford. And government involved in the deal up to its armpits.  In case you missed it, the government will appoint four of the nine member board and the Canadian government will appoint one.  Fiat is essentially a management entity with only 3 on the board and a 35% stake.  And while the UAW will only have one seat, it will be a seat representing 55% ownership.

Yeah, nothing can go wrong with that.

~McQ