Posts Tagged ‘tarp’

Dean Baker on banks, bailouts, and reform

14 November 2011

Naked Capitalism has an excellent two-part interview with Dean Baker, one of the Cassandras who spotted the housing bubble years before it burst and who has been a much-needed gadfly in the ointment of economic news reporting and the economics profession. Baker’s new book, The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive, is available for free download here, including in Kindle and Nook formats. Here are some highlights from the interview, conducted by Philip Pilkington. I’ve highlighted in boldface some lines I found particularly compelling:

PP: Moving on, in the book you make the claim that had the financial system been allowed to melt down we would not actually have ended up in another Great Depression. This is not to say that you don’t recognise that letting the financial system melt down would have caused a lot of problems – for banks, of course, but also for pension funds and the like – but you say that those in charge of the bailouts exaggerated the importance of the financial sector. Could you explain briefly what you mean by this? And what do you think should have been done at the time of the bailouts?

DB: The point here is that we know how to reflate an economy. Massive government spending will do it. It got us out of the Great Depression, although not until World War II created the political consensus for the level of spending that was necessary to actually do the job.

A financial collapse cannot condemn us to a decade of stagnation and high unemployment. That only comes about from a prolonged period of political failure. If we had allowed the banks to collapse in the financial panic of 2008 then we would [still?] have had the opportunity to pick up the pieces and get the economy back on track with a massive stimulus program.

Of course it was best to not let the banks collapse. However the bailout should have come with real conditions that would have ensured the financial system was fundamentally restructured. This would have included breaking up the too big to fail banks (on a clear timetable, not necessarily at that time), serious caps on compensation, a commitment to principal write-downs and other real conditions.

At that time the banks were desperate. Without a big dose of public money they would almost certainly have been insolvent, so they would have had little choice but to accept whatever conditions were imposed. As it was, they almost got President Obama thanking them for taking taxpayer dollars in the bailout.

PP: Any ideas about what could be done with the banks now? Or is the damage already done?

DB: We still need to reform and downsize the financial sector. We don’t have the same leverage over the banks as we did at the peak of the crisis when we could have slapped whatever conditions we wanted on the loans and guarantees they needed to stay alive, but Congress can still pass laws that will rein in the industry.

At the top of the list is a financial speculation tax. A modest tax on financial transactions will do much to reduce the rents in the industry and to eliminate or drastically reduce short-term trading that serves no productive purpose. It will also raise a ton of money.

The second thing is breaking up the too big to fail banks. There is no justification for allowing banks to be able to borrow at below market interest rates because they enjoy an implicit government guarantee.

The third item on my list would be re-instating a Glass-Steagall type separation between commercial and investment banking. The Volcker rule, which limits proprietary trading by banks with insured deposits, was a step in the right direction. However it looks as though the industry is using the rule-making process to turn the law into Swiss cheese. It is likely that most banks will be able to find loopholes that will allow them to do as much proprietary banking as they want.

Anyhow, these would be my top three reforms. Politically, all of them would be very tough sells right now. By contrast, at the peak of the crisis, the industry would have voluntarily agreed to the last two in order to get the money they needed to stay alive.

PP: You write in the book that the idea that the banks repaid all the money from TARP is misleading. Could you explain this, because this myth is very prevalent in the mainstream media?

DB: Yes, this is really kind of a joke. The banks got loans at way below market interest rates from the government, and we are supposed be grateful that they repaid the loans? The difference between the market interest rate and the rate they actually paid amounted to a huge subsidy. This is something that anyone with even a passing familiarity with business or economics would recognize, which is why it is so insulting when political figures go around yapping about how the money was repaid with interest.

To see this point, suppose the government gives me a 30-year mortgage at 1 percent interest. If I make all my payments and pay off the mortgage has the government made money? By the logic of the politicians claiming that we profited by the bailout, the answer is yes.

A serious assessment would look at what the market rate for these loans was at the time they were made. To take one example, just before we lent $5 billion to Goldman through TARP, Warren Buffet lent $5 billion himself. He got twice the interest and a much more generous deal on warrants. Plus he knows that it was likely that the government would bail out Goldman if it got in trouble.

Elizabeth Warren commissioned a study of the implicit subsidies in the bailouts when she was head of the TARP oversight panel. As I recall, it came to over $100 billion on just the first batch of TARP loans to the large banks. This didn’t count the value of later TARP lending, the much larger lending programs from the Fed, nor the extensive set of guarantees provided by the Fed, Treasury, and the FDIC.

All of these commitments involved enormous subsidies. In the business world firms pay huge amounts of money if they want their debt to be guaranteed. And everyone understands that a below market loan is essentially a gift. That is why it is so insulting when they try to imply that the public has profited from these loans.

You can make the argument that it was good policy to subsidize the financial industry to get through the crisis, but to pretend that we did not subsidize them is just dishonest.

Incidentally, the reforms Baker suggests are similar to those recently suggested by Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi as a starting point for the Occupy Wall Street protesters. More on those later.


Keynes pulls a Lazarus

8 December 2009  “Obama outlines bailout for Main Street”

President Barack Obama outlined new multibillion-dollar stimulus and jobs proposals Tuesday, saying the nation must continue to “spend our way out of this recession” until more Americans are back at work.Without giving a price tag, Obama proposed a package of new spending for highway, bridge and other infrastructure projects, deeper tax breaks for small businesses and tax incentives to encourage people to make their homes more energy efficient….

A major part of his package is new incentives for small businesses, which account for two-thirds of the nation’s work force. He proposed a new tax cut for small businesses that hire in 2010 and an elimination for one year of the capital gains tax on profits from small-business investments.

Obama also proposed an elimination of fees on loans to small businesses, coupled with federal guarantees of those loans through the end of next year. He called for more government spending on infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges and water projects and for new tax breaks for consumers who invest in energy-efficient retrofits in their homes.

Works for me.  While I’d prefer to see more direct job creation in the form of federal jobs programs a la the Works Progress Administration or other New Deal agencies, my main reaction is what a difference a couple of weeks makes.

Still too big to fail

11 June 2009

. . . and too big to regulate.  JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and seven other megabanks got permission from the Obama Administration to repay their combined $68 billion in TARP debt to the government.  The government made a profit on the loans, and the banks are now out from the under the thumb of the TARP restrictions on executive pay and hiring.  Win-win, right?

Well, no, not for the taxpayers who are still implicitly on the hook for these ten behemoths should anything go wrong.  They are no more regulated than they were before the crisis, and there is no FDIC-like resolution system in place that would allow for the orderly failure of these financial supermarkets should they become insolvent (again?).   It would be rational for their managers to conclude that the institutions are still “too big to fail” and to return to reckless decision-making a la “heads I win, tails the taxpayers lose.”  Today’s Financial Times has an excellent editorial on the matter.   Wish I’d written it myself; the next best thing is to cut and paste most of it here:


Lies, damned lies, and bank profits

21 April 2009

Remember the good old days when “creative accounting” was an oxymoron?

Ever since Citigroup last month projected a profit for the first couple months of the year, big banks have been startling the Street with better-than-expected quarterly earnings reports.  And for a while, the Street was overjoyed and stock prices shot up for banks and overall.  But um, shouldn’t we have been taking these profit figures with a big grain of salt?

  • Advance manipulation (read: lowering) of expectations so that you can miraculously beat those expectations is an old, old game.
  • Accounting chicanery played no small part in getting us into the current mess.   Covering up losses to impress the market, just like covering up profits to thwart the taxman, is legal and commonplace, under generally accepted accounting practices.
  • An excessive focus on short-term profits also played a big part in getting us into this mess.  Shouldn’t we be looking at other factors, too?  In particular: Bank share prices were way down because of the widespread belief that the banks were either insolvent or headed that way.  Positive short-term profits (cash flow) and solvency (assets greater than liabilities) are two different things, and can coexist at least for a little while.
  • The federal government has subsidized the big banks to the tune of tens of billions of TARP money apiece.   Shouldn’t that make it easier for them to be profitable?  (The whole point was that the banks would loan that money out profitably.  Granted, that hasn’t happened to the desired extent — I just heard on the radio that total lending is lower now than before the TARP legislation — but banks are surely using their TARP money for something that generates income, like T-bonds, no?)


Big zombies

12 February 2009

Must . . . eat . . . money

(hat tip: Julia)

Many economists have been warning that the net-worth problems of the banks are a lot bigger than the $700 billion that’s been allocated to deal with them.  Some have said a TARP II, TARP III, etc., to the tune of $2 trillion or so may be necessary to fix the banks once and for all.  Now Dr. Doom himself, Nouriel Roubini, says the banking system is just plain insolvent, and by about $3.6 trillion.  The specter of 1990s-Japan-style zombie banks in the U.S. is no longer a specter but a reality, it seems.


Blinder on blunders

2 February 2009

Alan Blinder has long been both one of the best policy economists and one of the best writers in the profession, so it’s no surprise that his recent New York Times column, “Six Blunders En Route to a Crisis,” has great pith.   He is fair-minded enough to “omit mistakes that became clear only in hindsight.”  The list, in his words:

wild derivatives, sky-high leverage, a subprime surge, fiddling on foreclosures, letting Lehman go, TARP’s detour.

For quick insights on the current crisis, it’s a great resource.

(Note:  The title I provide is the one from the print edition.  The online edition employs a more prosaic title that does not allude to either Pirandello or Nixon.)