Questions and Observations

Free Markets, Free People

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.

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Energy Policy – “There Is No Productive Debate”

Here at the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston, we were able to hear from a very distinguished panel concerning the energy “debate”. I put the word “debate” in scare quotes because it seemed that the consensus of the panel was there really isn’t a productive debate going on.

Roger Ballentine of the Progressive Policy Institute says that the two sides are talking past each other with little real effort to engage in anything which would actually address strategic energy policy.

Sen Lisa Murkowski, addressed the audience by video and spoke of a “comprehensive” plan which would include all types of energy, obviously including oil and gas. She spoke of a “scarcity of will” on the part of Congress to aggressively go after our own natural resources and cited the Gulf of Mexico as an example. There, she said, lays 45 billion barrels of oil and 320 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that we seemingly refuse to tap.

Yet as API’s President and CEO, Jack Gerard pointed out, when polled 67% of the American public want the exploitation of the oil and gas assets to be found on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), and that last week the Florida House passed a bill authorizing drilling off the coast of Florida by a 70-43 margin. That is a huge margin and speaks loudly about the public’s sea change in attitude concerning offshore drilling.

But it seems like no one in power in Washington is listening. And that brings us to the second point this panel made – it is necessary to engage the public/consumer and get them involved in this debate. It is they who will live with and pay for whatever Congress cobbles together regarding energy policy. So far, however, the only thing that has accomplished that level of public engagement is the price of gasoline at the pump. When it was at $4 a gallon, the public emphatically weighed in saying “this is unacceptable” and “do what it takes to fix it (to include drilling in the OCS). Since the price of gas has retreated, to be replaced by the economic recession, the public’s attention has been diverted elsewhere.

But we’re at a critical juncture right now. Legislation is being written and moved ahead within the Congress even while panelists in Houston on both sides of the political spectrum are saying the debate needs to begin in earnest, in a bi-partisan and productive way and the public needs to be engaged.

This was a wide ranging panel and I took 16 pages of notes. This particular post covers 2 of them at best. However this gives you a sense of the frustration to be found among those there representing government, industry and think tanks. Both sides of the broad political spectrum on the panel agreed that the bi-partisan “civil discourse” that would move this sort of policy forward in a positive way doesn’t at present exist even while the legislation outlining future policy is being written.

I’ll have much more to say about this as I wade through the pages of notes I took, but this suffices to give the general impression of where we are when it comes a well thought out and comprehensive strategic energy policy. In a word, nowhere. I’ll get into the “why” of that (“climate change” is the “cultural wedge” that is being used to muddy the energy debate), and the implications in another post.

Others writing about this are Gateway Pundit, Bearing Drift, Little Miss Atilla, the Heritage Foundation, Ecopolitology, Donklephant and others.

~McQ.

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Student Prevents Mass Murder

Or so it would seem. 11 students gather at a friend’s apartment for a birthday celebration. Two armed masked men burst in:

Bailey said he thought it was the end of his life and the lives of the 10 people inside his apartment for a birthday party after two masked men with guns burst in through a patio door.

“They just came in and separated the men from the women and said, ‘Give me your wallets and cell phones,’” said George Williams of the College Park Police Department.

Bailey said the gunmen started counting bullets. “The other guy asked how many (bullets) he had. He said he had enough,” said Bailey.

That’s when one student grabbed a gun out of a backpack and shot at the invader who was watching the men. The gunman ran out of the apartment.

The student then ran to the room where the second gunman, identified by police as 23-year-old Calvin Lavant, was holding the women.

“Apparently the guy was getting ready to rape his girlfriend. So he told the girls to get down and he started shooting. The guy jumped out of the window,” said Bailey.

Lavant was found dead near his appartment. Apparently he lived in a neighboring building.

The student hasn’t been identified, but when you have armed, masked men counting bullets to ensure they had enough, I think I’d have probably reached the same conclusion as he did. And, for a change, the story ends with someone successfully defending themselves because they were armed instead of being victims in some “gun free zone”.

~McQ

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Thugs In The White House?

One of the things I try to do is take a look at stories and decide whether or not there’s enough there to blog about it. And part of that has to do with corroboration. When I first saw the story about the Obama White House allegedly threatening a Chrysler stakeholder during negotiations that eventually broke down, I wondered if perhaps that particular person might have been a little over sensitive or misinterpreted the situation. But it was interesting and something worth watching.

Today comes some corroboration making this a good blog story. Although the story uses anonymous sources, it uses multiple sources, and the reason for the anonymity should be obvious.

Although the focus has so been on allegations that the White House threatened Perella Weinberg, sources familiar with the matter say that other firms felt they were threatened as well. None of the sources would agree to speak except on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of political repercussions.

The sources, who represent creditors to Chrysler, say they were taken aback by the hardball tactics that the Obama administration employed to cajole them into acquiescing to plans to restructure Chrysler. One person described the administration as the most shocking “end justifies the means” group they have ever encountered. Another characterized Obama was “the most dangerous smooth talker on the planet- and I knew Kissinger.” Both were voters for Obama in the last election.

One participant in negotiations said that the administration’s tactic was to present what one described as a “madman theory of the presidency” in which the President is someone to be feared because he was willing to do anything to get his way. The person said this threat was taken very seriously by his firm.

The White House has denied the allegation that it threatened Perella Weinberg.

Is this true? Well, at this point, it is more true than it was when Perella Weinberg was the only one reporting it.

Is this good? No. If true, this demonstrates an abuse of power that has no place in government at any level. While we all understand politics isn’t bean-bag, threats to use political power (not legal power, but the power of the bully pulpit and vilification) in this manner are simply unacceptable.

If true.

Again, the more I monitor this and the more I read, the more I believe this may have happened. I’d like to see the anonymous sources step up and identify themselves. Yeah, I know it takes a certain level of courage, but this is one of those “nip it in the bud” moments.

And I’d expect the left to be just as loud in its denunciation of this sort of abuse of power as they were the last 8 years when executive power abuse was a focus of their outrage with the Bush administration.

I assume the reason for their outrage was the alleged abuse, not the politics of the abuser.

Right?

~McQ

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Comment Of The Day

It’s rare that I quit reading through a comment section because I happen upon what’s surely the best comment. However, this comment to Capt. Ed’s post about the Obama administration’s thuggish tactics in the Chrysler negotiations sums everything up perfectly:
obama-scold-finger1

“I did not have knowledgeable relations with it, that Constitution.”

Heh.

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The “Fifth Estate”

Interesting term being thrown around to describe the emerging “new media” alignment:

I recently heard the term “Fifth Estate” used at a Poynter conference to describe an emerging landscape for news, information, community and citizenship. It has also been used to describe the work of bloggers, but that circle may be too small for such a big term.

In my head, the Fifth Estate includes the Fourth Estate, the idea and value of a professional press corps as a way of informing and engaging the populace, and holding the powerful accountable. This vision of a Fifth Estate sees the Fourth Estate as necessary but insufficient for democratic life. The Fifth Estate could express what Jay Rosen has described as a “pro-am” model for the future of news, a frame that sees that the freedoms and responsibilities of the First Amendment empower not just a professional caste of news gatherers and distributors, but potentially every citizen.

I think it needs some tweaking but essentially, what was the “fourth estate”, i.e. professional journalism with a relative monopoly on the news reporting function (they still mostly enjoy a monopoly on the news gathering side although that is changing too) has now become what Rosen describes as “pro-am” in some fairly telling ways.

This trip I’m on, for instance, has driven that point home. Yesterday, I stood beside a reporter from Forbes and Reuters in a couple of exclusive press conferences and asked questions after a panel discussion that included the folks I mentioned yesterday. I was joined by 10 other bloggers. In my estimation our questions were more pointed and dug deeper than did those of the news organizations. It was an interesting experience. The guy from Forbes thought it was cool. They guy from Reuters didn’t. That’s pretty much indicative of the “MSM’s” perception of bloggers I think – but the interesting thing was my press credentials were just as valid as theirs. Heh …

Anyway, as I told one of the MSM members yesterday as we chatted, I’m not a journalist and will never pretend to be. I write opinion pieces, and I don’t pretend to be “fair and balanced” . I also said I thought that there was room for both of us in all of this to which he agreed. And, as I pointed out, blogging seems to have become pretty mainstream since most newspapers now have journalists blogging on site.

I really haven’t had a chance to put my thoughts together on the 3 hour panel we sat in on yesterday, but the short version of it was “hey, we need to have a non-partisan dialog about energy planning and we need to find a way to engaged the consumer in the conversation” all the while also saying, “legislation is heading down the track like a freight train and it isn’t very well thought out”.

Anyway, more today if I get the chance.

~McQ

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Houston, You Have A Problem …

That problem would be putting up with me for 4 days.

I’m in Houston at the invitation of the American Petroleum Institute (who is kindly picking up the tab) to cover the Offshore Technology Conference here. About 75,000 oil folks are converging on the place for 4 days of conferences and panels on various topics.

Today, the “Meeting The Energy Challenge” panel meets and it should be interesting. We’ll have the president of Shell Oil, a Senior Fellow of the Progressive Policy Institute, the president of the API, the presidents of the American Trucking Associations and Air Transport Association, the president of the Consumer Energy Alliance, the Executive Director of the National Council on Energy Policy and Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee (D-TX) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) here to talk about that – I’m looking forward to it.

And Pogue – if you read this and can respond, yes, I will be glad to buy you a beer – just let me know when (other than monday night) we can do it prior to Thursday before I fly out.

~McQ

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