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Archive for the ‘Moral Hazard’ Category

When you support limited government and individual freedom, you don’t enjoy many victories. Particularly if you’re relying on the U.S. Senate.

But it occasionally happens.

The Senate held firm and stopped Obama from getting a fiscal cliff tax hike at the end of 2010.

The Senate overwhelmingly voted against a VAT.

The Senate unanimously rejected a Greek bailout.

To be sure, some of these votes were merely window dressing, but it’s still better to have symbolic victories rather than symbolic defeats.

Today, however, I want to report on a real victory against statism. The Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, has been forced to give up on his effort to ram through an expansion of IMF bailout authority as part of legislation giving money to Ukraine.

This is the second time that this White House initiative has been blocked.

Here are some blurbs from a report in Politico.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will drop a provision to reform the International Monetary Fund from a bill to help Ukraine… Reid acknowledged that while the Ukraine package would likely have passed the Senate, it was “headed to nowhere” in the GOP-led House. …the administration did not hide its disappointment Tuesday afternoon over the removal of the IMF language. “We are deeply disappointed by the news that Republican opposition has forced the Senate to remove the [IMF] reforms from the Ukraine assistance package,” said Treasury Department spokeswoman Holly Shulman. …Backers of including the IMF reforms in the Ukraine deal note that it will help boost the organization’s lending capacity. …The United States is the lone holdout country that has not ratified the IMF deal, which was struck more than three years ago. But many congressional Republicans have raised concerns about potential taxpayer risk with the IMF agreement.

It goes without saying that the IMF won’t give up, and the Obama Administration is still pushing to expand the international bureaucracy’s bailout authority.

The battle will continue. Lew and ObamaIn preparation for the next skirmish, Desmond Lachmann at AEI debunks the White House’s empty talking points.

Next week, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will make his case before the House Financial Service Committee for linking IMF reform to U.S. bilateral aid for Ukraine. If the past is any guide, he will do so by putting forward a set of disingenuous arguments in favor of his case. …The principal argument that Secretary Lew must be expected to make is that IMF quota reform is essential for large-scale IMF Ukrainian financial support. This argument glosses over the fact that under the IMF’s lending policy under “exceptional circumstances”, which has been resorted to on many occasions since the 1994 Mexican tequila crisis, the amount that the IMF can lend a country bears little relation to the size of that country’s IMF quota.  …Ukraine is reportedly currently seeking around a U.S. $15 billion IMF economic adjustment loan. If Mr. Lew were to be candid, he would inform Congress that such an amount represents only around 800 percent of Ukraine’s present IMF quota or less than half the amount of quota that the IMF recently committed to several countries in the European economic periphery. He would also inform Congress that the IMF presently has more than U.S. $400 billion in uncommitted loanable resources. This would make the IMF’s prospective loan to Ukraine but a drop in the IMF’s large bucket of available resources even without IMF reform.

Lachmann goes on to make additional points, including the fact that IMF bailouts create very real financial risks for American taxpayers.

The U.S. Treasury never tires of assuring Congress that large-scale IMF lending poses no risk to the US taxpayer. It bases its argument on the fact that the IMF enjoys preferred creditor status and that to date no major country has defaulted on its IMF loans. However, the Treasury conveniently glosses over the fact that IMF loan repayment experience with past IMF lending on a small scale might not be a good guide to what might happen on IMF loans of an unprecedentedly large scale. To understand that there now might be a real risk to the US taxpayer from IMF lending, one only need reflect on the IMF’s current Greek lending experience. Greece’s public debt is now mainly officially owned and it amounts to over 175 percent of GDP. It is far from clear that the European Central Bank will go along with the idea that the IMF enjoys senior status over the ECB in terms of Greece’s loan repayments.

His point about risks to taxpayers is right on the mark. In effect, the IMF is like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. For years, defenders of intervention in the housing market argued those government-created entities didn’t cost a penny. Then they suddenly cost a lot.

The same will happen with the IMF.

Lachmann closes by asking the right question, which is whether there’s any reason to expand the IMF’s authority.

I think that’s the real issue. And to answers that question, let’s go to Mark Hendrickson’s column in Forbes.

He starts by noting that the IMF has “re-invented” itself to justify its existence, even though it supposedly was created for a world – which no longer exists – of fixed exchange rates.

Bureaucracies are masters of mission creep. They constantly reinvent themselves, cleverly finding ways to expand in size, scope, power, and budget. The IMF has perfected this art, having evolved from its original purpose of trying to facilitate orderly currency exchange rates as countries recovered from World War II to morphing into a global busybody that makes loans—with significant strings attached—to bankrupt governments.

And what do we get in exchange for being the biggest backer of IMF bailouts?

What has the American taxpayer received in return for billions of dollars siphoned through the IMF to deadbeat governments? Nothing but ill will from abroad. First, the IMF’s policy of lending millions, or billions, to fiscally mismanaged governments is counterproductive: Such bailouts help to prop up inept and/or corrupt governments. Second, bailouts create moral hazard, inducing private corporations and banks to lend funds to poor credit risks, confident that IMF funds will make them whole. Third, typical IMF rescue packages demand…higher taxes in the name of balancing the budget.

It would be far better, Professor Hendrickson explains, if reckless governments had to immediately accept the market’s judgement whenever they overspent.

…it doesn’t take expert economists to figure out when a government is overspending. Markets will discipline spendthrift governments by ceasing to make funds available to them until they institute needed reforms. Without a bailout fairy like the IMF, government leaders will quickly learn that if they wish the government to remain viable, they must spend within available means. By telling governments what they “have” to do when it’s obvious they need to make those reforms anyhow, the IMF gives the recipient government a convenient scapegoat. It blames the pain of austerity on meddlesome foreigners, and since the U.S. is perceived as the real power in the IMF, we get painted as the bad guys. The bottom line: IMF use of our tax dollars buys us a ton of resentment from abroad.

He also points out that the IMF makes a habit of suggesting bad policy – even for the United States.

the IMF has waged war against American taxpayers and workers. Last October, the IMF released a paper suggesting both higher tax rates (mentioning a “revenue-maximizing” top marginal tax rate of around 60 percent) and possibly the confiscation of a sizable percentage of private assets to restore fiscal balance to the federal government. The IMF also has been one of the leading forces discouraging “tax competition” between countries. …It is using American tax dollars to lobby the American government to increase the flow of tax dollars from our Treasury to the IMF. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that the IMF released a report on March 13 warning of the perils of “income inequality,” and suggesting tax increases and wealth redistribution as ways by which Uncle Sam might address the problem.

So what’s the bottom line?

If the IMF really wanted to improve the economic prospects of the world’s people, it would recommend reductions in government spending and taxation. Indeed, the overwhelming evidence is that vigorous economic growth is highly correlated with a country’s government shrinking as a share of GDP. What are the chances that the IMF will ever advocate such policies? Not very, as we realize that the IMF’s very existence depends on government taxes. …In a better world, there wouldn’t be an IMF. For the present, though, the best we can hope for is for enough members of Congress to understand that the IMF’s interests are opposed to those of the American people and to refuse any requests that the IMF makes for increased funding.

The Wall Street Journal is more measured in its rhetoric, but it basically comes to the same conclusion.

Republicans are reluctant to grant more leverage to European countries, which they blame for relaxing rules on Greece’s bailout in order to rescue the continent’s banks. …An internal audit last week also found that the fund’s growth forecasts were “optimistic” for countries like Greece and Ukraine that were granted larger loans under its “exceptional access” framework. Republicans fear the IMF is becoming a discount borrowing window for spendthrift governments trying to postpone reforms. IMF economic advice is often lousy—raise taxes and devalue… Congress ought to debate whether the IMF has outlived its usefulness as it evolves from a tool for Western interests into a global check-writing bureaucracy.

Amen. Which is why the United States should shut the Treasury door to the IMF. If other nations want to subsidize bad policy and promote bigger government, they can do it with their own money.

P.S. Here’s a list of other IMF transgressions against good public policy (all partially backed by American taxpayers).

Endorsing government cartels to boost tax and regulatory burdens.

Trying to undermine flat tax systems in Albania and Latvia.

Encouraging a “collective response” to over-spending in welfare states.

Pushing for higher tax burdens in Greece.

Seeking the same destructive policy in Cyprus.

Advocating for more centralization and bureaucratic rule in Europe.

Urging higher taxes in El Salvador.

Supporting “eurobonds” so that taxpayers from other nations can subsidize the profligacy of welfare states such as Greece, Italy, and Spain.

Pushing an energy tax that would mean $5,500 of added expense for the average American household.

Reflexively endorsing every possible tax increase.

Aiding and abetting Obama’s “inequality” agenda with disingenuous research.

And remember, these pampered bureaucrats get lavishly compensated and don’t have to pay tax on their bloated salaries.

P.P.S. But let’s be fair to the IMF. The bureaucrats have given us – albeit unintentionally – some very good evidence against the value-added tax.

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For my birthday last year, the only present I wanted was for the Supreme Court to uphold the Constitution and reject Obamacare.

Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Instead, the Chief Justice put politics above the law and made a mockery of his Oath of Office.

So I’m now a bit superstitious and I’m not going to write about anything I want today or in the future. But I will pretend that something good happened because it’s my birthday, so let’s celebrate the fact that the European Union has basically made the right decision on how to deal with insolvent banks.

Technically, it happened yesterday, the day before my birthday, but it’s being reported today, and that’s close enough for me. Here are some details from the EU Observer.

Bank shareholders and creditors will be first in line to suffer losses if their bank gets into difficulties, according to draft rules agreed by ministers in the early hours of Thursday morning… Under the new regime, banks’ creditors and shareholders would be the first to take losses. But if this proves insufficient to rescue the bank in question, savers holding uninsured deposits worth more than €100,000 would also take a hit.

This is basically the “FDIC-resolution” approach that I’ve mentioned before, and it’s sort of what happened in Cyprus (after the politicians tried every other option).

And it’s the opposite of the corrupt TARP system that the Bush and Obama Administrations imposed on the American people.

The reason this new European approach is good is that it puts the pressure for sound business decisions where it belongs – with the shareholders who own the bank and with the big creditors (such as bondholders) who should be responsible for monitoring the underlying safety and soundness of a bank before lending it money.

And rich people (depositors with more than €100,000) also should be smart enough to apply some due diligence before putting their money someplace.

The last people to bear any costs should be taxpayers. They don’t own the bank. They don’t invest in the bank. And they don’t have big bucks. So why should they bear the cost when the big-money people screw up?!? Especially when TARP-style bailouts promote moral hazard!

I’m sure the new system won’t be properly implemented, that there are some bad details in the fine print, and there will be too many opportunities for back-door bailouts and cronyism, but let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Happy Birthday to me. And such an unexpected present: Something good actually came out of Europe!

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It doesn’t create a lot of confidence in Europe that tiny little Cyprus, with a GDP less than Vermont, is now causing immense turmoil.

Though to be more accurate, events in Cyprus aren’t causing turmoil as much as they’re causing people to examine both government finances and bank soundness in other nations. And that’s causing anxiety because folks have taken their heads out of the sand and looked at the reality of poor balance sheets.

Looking closer at the specific mess in Cyprus, an insolvent financial sector is the cause of the current crisis, though the problem is exacerbated by the fact that the government has dramatically increased the burden of government spending in recent years and therefore isn’t in a position to finance a bailout.

But that then raises the question of why Cyprus is bailing out its banks? Why not just let the banks fail?

Well, here’s where things get messy, particularly since we don’t have a lot of details. There are basically three options for dealing with financial sector insolvency.

  1. In a free market, it’s easy to understand what happens when a financial institution becomes insolvent. It goes into bankruptcy, wiping out shareholders. The institution is then liquidated and the recovered money is used to partially pay of depositors, bondholders, and other creditors based on the underlying contracts and laws.
  2. In a system with government-imposed deposit insurance, taxpayers (or bank consumers via insurance premiums) are on the hook to compensate depositors when the liquidation occurs. This is what is called the “FDIC resolution” approach in the United States.
  3. And in a system of cronyism, the government gives taxpayer money directly to the banks, which protects depositors but also bails out the shareholders and bondholders and allows the institutions to continue operating.

As far as I can determine, Cyprus wants to pick the third option, sort of akin to the corrupt TARP regime in the United States. But that approach can only work if the government has the ability to come up with the cash when banks go under.

I’m assuming, based on less-than-thorough news reports, that this is the real issue for Cyprus. It needs taxpayers elsewhere to pick up the tab so it can bail out not only depositors, but also to keep zombie banks operating and thus give some degree of aid to shareholders and bondholders as well.

But other taxpayers don’t want to give Cyprus a blank check, so they’re insisting that depositors have to take a haircut. In other words, the traditional government-imposed deposit insurance regime is being modified in an ad hoc fashion.

And this is why events in tiny Cyprus are echoing all over Europe. Folks in other nations with dodgy banks and unsound finances are realizing that their bank accounts might be vulnerable to haircuts as well.

So what should be done?

I definitely think the insolvent institution should be liquidated. The big-money people should suffer when they mismanage a bank. Shareholders should lose all their money. Then bondholders should lose their money.

Then, if a bailout is necessary, it should go only to depositors (though I’m not against the concept of giving them a “haircut” to save money for taxpayers).

But Cyprus apparently can’t afford even that option. And the same is probably true of other European nations.

In other words, there isn’t a good solution. The only potential silver lining to this dark cloud is that people are sobering up and acknowledging that the problem is widespread.

Whether that recognition leads to good policies to address the long-run imbalances – such as reductions in the burden of government spending and the implementation of pro-market reforms – remains to be seen.

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I have a serious question for readers. What’s worse, bailouts for government or bailouts for the private sector?

Yes, both are bad, but is it worse to bail out a bankrupt entitlement program, such as Social Security, or it is worse to bail out an industry, such as the financial sector?

Bailout gravy train cartoonTo bail out the housing sector, or to bail out Medicare? Fannie and Freddie, or GM and Chrysler?

All these examples involve huge amounts of money, and both private-sector and public-sector bailouts have perverse long-run effects, but which is worse?

And don’t forget there are lots of other bailouts in our future, as discussed on this interview for Fox Business News.

The interview took place before Christmas, but the topic is even more relevant today since the budget season is about to begin.

Most of the discussion was about government agencies and programs that may get more handouts, though bailouts for the Federal Housing Administration and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation would be indirect bailouts for big business and housing.

So we’d get the worst of all worlds, more government spending and more cronyism.

Or, as they call it in Washington, a win-win situation.

But I call it legal corruption.

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This past Monday, I took part in a panel discussion about the financial crisis at the European Resource Bank in Brussels.

One of my main points was that people in private markets always make mistakes, but that this is a healthy and necessary process so long as there is a profit and loss feedback mechanism that encourages people to quickly learn when things go wrong (and also to reward them when they make wise decisions).

In the financial crisis, though, we saw the government interfere with this process. First, bad policies such as easy money from the Fed and corrupt Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac subsidies distorted market signals and caused a needlessly high level of mistakes. Second, bailouts interfered with the feedback mechanism, teaching people that large levels of imprudent risk are okay.

The politicians, unsurprisingly, didn’t learn the right lessons. Instead of reducing the level of government intervention, they imposed the Dodd-Frank bailout bill (named after two lawmakers who were pimps for Fannie and Freddie and thus disproportionately responsible for the crisis).

I don’t know if this is a case of too-little-too-late, but more and more people are waking up to the idea that regulation is the problem rather than the solution. Perhaps most important, some of these people are in positions of power.

Let’s begin with a look at how the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page reacted to some very important research by some uncharacteristically astute regulators from the Bank of England.

…the speech of the year was delivered at the Federal Reserve’s annual policy conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming on August 31. And not by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. …BoE Director of Financial Stability Andrew Haldane and colleague Vasileios Madouros point the way toward the real financial reform that Washington has never enacted. The authors marshal compelling evidence that as regulation has become more complex, it has also become less effective. They point out that much of the reason large banks are so difficult for regulators to comprehend is because regulators themselves have created complicated metrics that can’t provide accurate measurements of a bank’s health. …Basel II relied far too much on the judgments of government-anointed credit-rating agencies, plus a catastrophic bias in favor of mortgages as “safe.” Instead of learning from that mistake, the gnomes have written into the new Basel III rules a dangerous bias in favor of sovereign debt. The growing complexity of the rules leaves more room for banks to pursue regulatory arbitrage, identifying assets that can be classified as safe, at least for compliance purposes. …in both the U.K. and U.S. the number of regulators has for decades risen faster than the number of people employed in finance. Complexity grows still faster. The authors report that in the 12 months after the passage of Dodd-Frank, rule-making that represents a mere 10% of the expected total will impose more than 2.2 million hours of annual compliance work on private business. Recent history suggests that if anything this will make another crisis more likely. Here’s a better idea: Raise genuine capital standards at banks and slash regulatory budgets in Washington. Abandon the Basel rules on “risk-weighting” and other fantasies of regulatory omniscience.

The references to the Basel regulations are particularly noteworthy. These are the rules, cobbled together by regulators from different nations, and they’re supposed to steer financial institutions away from excessive risk.

You won’t be surprised to learn, though, that these rules caused imprudent behavior. Indeed, one of the slides from my presentation in Brussels specifically highlighted the perverse impact of the Basel regulations.

Some American regulators also understand the inverse relationship between regulation and well-functioning markets. The Wall Street Journal opines on the words of Thomas Hoenig.

The same “fundamentally flawed” system of financial rules that failed in 2008 lives on, “but with more complexity” in the latest proposals from regulators. That was the blunt message on Friday from Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Director Thomas Hoenig. He was talking about the pending implementation of international bank capital standards known as Basel III. …Mr. Hoenig did a public service at an American Banker symposium by reviewing the relevant history from 2008: “It turns out that the Basel capital rules protected no one: not the banks, not the public, and certainly not the FDIC that bore the cost of the failures or the taxpayers who funded the bailouts. The complex Basel rules hurt, rather than helped the process of measurement and clarity of information.” Observing a Basel system that only grows more complicated as U.S. regulators prepare to implement the latest version, the former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City also pointed out that the biggest winners from such regulatory regimes are never the little guys. Mr. Hoenig explained that “the most brazen and connected banks with the smartest experts will game the system…”

I closed my remarks in Brussels by saying that government does have a role in financial markets, but I said that it should focus on identifying and punishing fraud. The free market, by contrast, is the best way to promote safety and soundness.

More specifically, there is nothing quite like the possibility of failure and losses to encourage prudent behavior. As I stated in this interview, capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell.

Hell, by contrast, occurs when government intervenes and sets up a system of private profits and socialized losses.

P.S. The financial crisis doesn’t create much opportunity for humor, but this cartoon is definitely worth a laugh.

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Today’s a big day in European politics. French voters are going to the polls to decide the fate of Nicolas Sarkozy, the socialist incumbent. I’ve endorsed Francois Hollande, the Socialist challenger, so I’m curious to see what will happen.

The more important contest, though, is in Greece. Voters are electing a new Parliament, and it will be interesting to see whether the two establishment parties (both of which are statist, of course) hold on to power.

The looters and moochers that comprise the Greek electorate are in a pissy mood and may opt for various protest parties.

That’s not too surprising, but the press coverage of the election is a bit surreal.

An article in the EU Observer is entitled “Greek elections to usher in anti-bail-out parties,” and the opening paragraph echoes this title, implying that Greek voters don’t like bailouts.

 Greece’s two main parties are set for heavy losses in Sunday’s (6 May) elections, with anti-bail-out groups on the extreme left and right to enter parliament for the first time, raising again the prospect of an exit from the eurozone.

There’s just one tiny problem with the both the title of the first paragraph. Contrary to what’s written, the new political parties are pro-bailout. They are quite happy to mooch off German taxpayers, American taxpayers, and anyone else who is stupid enough to send money (after all, somebody has to finance critical functions of government, such as collecting stool samples from people who want to set up online companies and subsidizing pedophiles).

What gets them upset is the notion that they should do anything in exchange for these handouts. Perish the thought!

If the media had any brains (I don’t think this is a case of ideological bias), they would change the title from “Greek elections to usher in anti-bail-out parties” to “Greek elections to usher in anti-conditionality parties.” Or something like that.

I actually hope these anti-conditionality parties prevail. Because if they get power and say that they won’t do anything to fix Greece’s budget, maybe the fiscal pyromaniacs at the International Monetary Fund and elsewhere will finally stop the bailouts.

Which is what I said was the right approach way back when the crisis began. So maybe after every other option is exhausted, the right thing will finally happen. Hope springs eternal.

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Kevin Williamson of National Review is always worth reading, whether he’s kicking Paul Krugman’s behind in a discussion about the Texas economy, explaining supply-side economics, or even when he’s writing misguided things about taxation.

But I’m tempted to say that anything he’s written to date pales into insignificance compared to his analysis of the corrupt relationship between big government and Wall Street. Here are some excerpts, but read the entire article.

He starts out with a strong claim about the Obama Administration being in the back pocket of Wall Street.

…it’s no big deal to buy a president, which is precisely what Wall Street did in 2008 when, led by investment giant Goldman Sachs, it closed the deal on Barack Obama. For a few measly millions, Wall Street not only bought itself a president, but got the start-up firm of B. H. Obama & Co. LLC to throw a cabinet into the deal, too — on remarkably generous terms. …the real bonus turned out to be Treasury secretary Tim Geithner, who came up through the ranks as part of the bipartisan Robert Rubin–Hank Paulson–Citigroup–Goldman Sachs cabal. Geithner, a government-and-academe man from way back, never really worked on Wall Street, though he once was offered a gig as CEO of Citigroup, which apparently thought he did an outstanding job as chairman of the New York Fed, where one of his main tasks was regulating Citigroup — until it collapsed into the yawning suckhole of its own cavernous ineptitude, at which point Geithner’s main job became shoveling tens of billions of federal dollars into Citigroup, in an ingeniously structured investment that allowed the government to buy a 27 percent share in the bank, for which it paid more than the entire market value of the bank. If you can’t figure out why you’d pay 100-plus percent of a bank’s value for 27 percent of it, then you just don’t understand high finance or high politics.

Since I’ve compared Tim Geithner to Forest Gump, I’m not going to argue with this assessment.

Later in the article, Kevin makes a case that politicians are engaging in widespread insider trading.

Nancy Pelosi and her husband were parties to a dozen or so IPOs, many of which were effectively off limits to all but the biggest institutional investors and their favored clients. One of those was a 2008 investment of between $1 million and $5 million in Visa, an opportunity the average investor could not have bought, begged, or borrowed his way into — one that made the Pelosis a 50 percent profit in two days. Visa, of course, had business before Speaker Pelosi, who was helping to shape credit-card-reform legislation at the time. Visa got what it wanted. The Pelosis have also made some very fortunate investments in gasand energy firms that have benefited from Representative Pelosi’s legislative actions. The Pelosis made a million bucks off a single deal involving OnDisplay, the IPO of which was underwritten by investment banker William Hambrecht, a major Pelosi campaign contributor. …Besting Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D., N.Y.) got in on the pre-IPO action, without putting up so much as one rapidly depreciating U.S. dollar of his own assets, when a political supporter — who just happened to be the biggest shareholder of the firm in question — lent him $14,000 to buy shares in the private company, which he then sold for more than a hundred grand after the firm went public. There wasn’t so much as a written loan agreement. On and on and on it goes: Sen. John Kerry invested aggressively in health-care companies while shaping health-care legislation. Rep. Spencer Bachus (R. Ala.) was a remarkably apt options trader during the days when he had a front-row seat to Congress’s deliberations on the unfolding financial crisis.

I wish I had known these details when I went on TV to discuss congressional corruption earlier this year.

Kevin also explained how Warren Buffett made a boatload of money thanks to insider knowledge about bailouts.

…during the financial crisis, a big piece of Goldman Sachs was bought by Warren Buffett, who stacked up a lot of cash when the government poured money into that struggling investment bank with the support of Barack Obama. When the federal government bought into Goldman Sachs, it negotiated for itself a 5 percent dividend. Warren Buffett got 10 percent — on top of the benefit of having Washington inundate his investment with great rippling streams of taxpayers’ money.

No wonder Buffett’s willing to lie in order to help his buddies in Washington raise taxes.

There’s a lot more in the article, but here’s a final excerpt that sums up Kevin’s article.

Wall Street can do math, and the math looks like this: Wall Street + Washington = Wild Profitability. Free enterprise? Entrepreneurship? Starting a business making and selling stuff behind some grimy little storefront? You’d have to be a fool. Better to invest in political favors. …hedge-fund titans, i-bankers, congressional nabobs, committee chairmen, senators, swindlers, run-of-the-mill politicos, and a few outright thieves (these categories are not necessarily exclusive) all feeding at the same trough, and most of them betting that Mitt Romney won’t do anything more to stop it than Barack Obama did. …Free-market, limited-government conservatives should be none too eager to welcome them back, nor should we let our natural sympathy with the profit motive blind us to the fact that a great many of them do not belong in the conservative movement, and that more than a few of them belong in prison.

All of this underscores why TARP was such an unmitigated disaster – and why we should be suspicious of politicians like Romney and Gingrich who supported the bailouts.

Remember, capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell.

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The welfare states of Europe are in deep trouble. Decades of over-taxing and over-spending have sapped economic vitality and produced high levels of debt.

The high debt levels, by themselves, might not be a problem if European governments implemented good policy. After all, debt was even higher in many nations after World War II than it is today.

But Europe also faces a demographic problem. The population is aging, meaning that the fiscal situation will get worse - in some cases, much worse. So international investors are appropriately worried that today’s high debt levels will become tomorrow’s crippling debt levels.

And the cherry on the ice cream sundae of Europe’s fiscal nightmare is that many people have been lulled into dependency thanks to excessive government handouts combined with a political culture that tells people there is nothing wrong with mooching off others (as this cartoon aptly illustrates).

This sounds quite depressing, but there is a shred of hope. Simply stated, nations that hit rock bottom presumably have little choice but to move in the right direction.

Actually, let me qualify that statement. Governments do have the ability to maintain bad policy if they have access to bailout cash. And that’s been a problem in Europe. Nations such as Greece have very little incentive to reform if they think the European Union (German taxpayers) or International Monetary Fund (American taxpayers) will cough up some cash.

But that game, sooner or later, comes to an end. As Margaret Thatcher noted, the problem with socialism is that sooner or later you run out of other people’s money.

So what, then, should be done to address the European debt crisis? The European political elite in places such as France and Germany say more bailouts are needed. Why? Because without more bailouts, there will be contagion and the world will plunge into another 2008-style crisis.

But when you strip away the hysterical rhetoric, what they’re really saying is that bailouts are needed for the banks in their own nations that foolishly lent too much money to reckless governments in other nations.

As you might suspect, this is self-serving nonsense that would simply create a bigger debt bubble that ultimately causes bigger problems.

The right answer to the European debt crisis is simple. And it only requires two steps.

1. Do not give bailouts to nations, even if that means they default. This isn’t good news if you bought, say, Greek or Portuguese bonds, but there are two big advantages of default. First, it means that the bailouts come to an end so the debt bubble doesn’t get even worse. Second, it forces the affected governments to move – overnight – to a balanced-budget rule.

So what’s the downside? There isn’t one. The aforementioned bondholders won’t be happy. They gambled in the expectation that bailouts would enable them to get high returns, but that’s their problem. Overpaid government workers and greedy interest groups in the affected nations doubtlessly will be very upset because the gravy train gets derailed, but that’s a feature, not a bug.

2. If banks become insolvent because they recklessly lent money to governments  that default, those financial institutions should be allowed to fail. More specifically, they should be put into something akin to receivership (similar to what the U.S. did 20 years ago with the S&L crisis and a few years ago with WaMu and IndyMac, and also like what Sweden did in the early 1990s). This automatically prevents financial crisis since the financial sector gets recapitalized, but without the moral hazard and/or zombie bank problems associated with TARP-style bailouts.

So what’s the downside? There isn’t one, at least compared to the alternatives. Governments would be holding harmless depositors at the failed banks, so there would be additional debt. But this debt would be a one-time burden for a policy that actually stops the bleeding, and there would be no moral hazard since shareholders, bondholders, and senior management at the failed banks would get nothing.

This raises an obvious question. If my proposed solution is so simple, why aren’t governments choosing this option?

Part of the answer is that simple solutions aren’t necessarily easy solutions. We know how to fix America’s fiscal crisis, for instance, but that doesn’t mean it will happen. Governments will sometimes do the right thing – but only after they’ve exhausted every other option.

Europe isn’t quite at that stage. Yes, Greece is being allowed to default, which is a small step in the right direction, but the political elite hope that the right blend of additional bailouts and patchwork reforms can fix the problem.

I suppose that might happen, especially if the world economy somehow begins to boom. But don’t hold your breath.

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I’m not an expert on addiction, but it’s probably safe to assume that one would never treat an alcoholic by giving him more booze. Or treat an addict by giving him more drugs.

So you won’t be surprised to learn that I’m opposed to bailouts. I’m against bailing out banks. I’m against bailing out car companies. I’m against bailing out governments.

And I’m against bailing out international bureaucracies that are running short on cash because they’ve been busy engaging in bailouts, which is the point I make in this Fox News interview.

I wish there was more time in the interview to expand on the issue of corrupt investors and financial institutions that love to make big profits when a bubble is expanding, but want handouts, subsidies, and bailouts when a bubble bursts.

This is why short-term blips in the stock market are not necessarily a good indicator of the economy’s long-run health.

Another point worth making is that failure is (or should be) part of the market process. One of my favorite lines, which I should have used in the interview, is that “capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell.”

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This is getting surreal. We now have layers of bailouts around the world.

Different nations are doing their own bailouts. On top of that, the Europeans have set up something called the European Financial Stability Facility, which does bailouts across the continent. And then there’s the International Monetary Fund, doing bailouts on a global basis. (and we’re not even counting the indirect bailouts from the Federal Reserve and European Central Bank)

So how is this system working? Well, if you understand the principle of moral hazard, you won’t be surprised to learn that it’s a big flop. Giving bailouts is like trying to cure an alcoholic with more booze.

But the problems are much deeper than promoting bad behavior. Bailouts also undermine growth by misallocating capital. And, most ominously, they create even bigger problems down the road.

Which is now what’s happening. The queen bureaucracy of bailouts, the IMF, may run out of bailout money, and presumably will demand more handouts from member nations – with the United States on the hook for providing the biggest share. Here’s a blurb from the story in the Daily Telegraph.

The head of the IMF has warned that its $384bn (£248bn) war chest designed as an emergency bail-out fund is inadequate to deliver the scale of the support required by troubled states.In a document distributed to the IMF steering committee at the weekend, Ms Lagarde said: “The fund’s credibility, and hence effectiveness, rests on its perceived capacity to cope with worst-casescenarios. Our lending capacity of almost $400bn looks comfortable today, but pales in comparison with the potential financing needs of vulnerable countries and crisis bystanders.”

At the risk of stating the obvious, the IMF should not get any more money. This is one of those moments for which the phrase “Hell No!” was invented.

The time has come to stop the cycle of bailouts. As Greece has demonstrated, bailouts simply give politicians some breathing room to postpone necessary reforms.

But it’s not just that bailouts encourage bad behavior in the public sector. They also promote moral hazard, leading financial institutions to make excessively risky loans because of an expectation that taxpayers will be coerced into making up any losses.

To understand why bailouts and moral hazard are so misguided, here’s a video narrated by Nicole Neily of the Independent Women’s Forum.

The video largely focuses on American policy issues such as Fannie, Freddie, and TARP, but the principles apply to all bailouts.

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This is either frightening or hilarious. The people in Washington who are trying to make America more like Europe are advising the Europeans to double-down on the awful policies that have pushed the continent’s welfare states to insolvency.

Here are some of the surreal details from a CNBC report.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will take the unprecedented step of attending a meeting of EU finance ministers in Poland on Friday. It will be his second trip to Europe in a week after he met his main EU counterparts at a G7 meeting last weekend. Obama said that while Greece is the immediate concern, an even bigger problem is what may happen should markets keep attacking the larger economies of Spain and Italy. “In the end the big countries in Europe, the leaders in Europe must meet and take a decision on how to coordinate monetary integration with more effective co-ordinated fiscal policy,” the news agency EFE quoted him as saying. Geithner is likely to urge euro zone finance ministers on Friday to speed up ratification of changes to their bailout fund and consider boosting its size, an EU source said. …Obama’s comments suggested that Washington is trying to nudge European governments toward closer fiscal union or a bigger bailout fund to recapitalize teetering banks but European politics, especially in Germany, make that difficult.

Your eyes are not deceiving you. Obama and Geithner want more bailouts, which will simply encourage more profligacy. And the President even endorsed more harmonization of economic policy, which will exacerbate the problems in Europe by leading to higher taxes, more spending, and additional regulation.

But you have to give Obama and Geithner credit. They support the same bad policies on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Obama, however, is not fully consistent in his beliefs. During a visit to Africa, he said, “No business wants to invest in a place where government skims 20 percent off the top.” But I guess bigger government is okay in Europe, where the burden of government is already 50 percent of economic output.

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Here are two superb articles on the financial crisis.

First, from Peter Wallison at the American Enterprise Institute, we have a piece on the role of government housing subsidies. Since he warned, in advance, that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were ticking time bombs, Peter has great credibility on these issues. Here is his key argument, but read the article to see how bad government policy lured people into making dumb choices.

…the financial crisis would not have occurred if government housing policies had not fostered the creation of an unprecedented number of subprime and otherwise risky loans immediately before the financial crisis began.

Second, there’s an article from Roger Lowenstein at Bloomberg that examines why so few Wall Street bigwigs were prosecuted. Here’s his basic premise, but read the entire article to learn how Wall Street executives may have been greedy SOBs, but that’s true when they make money or lose money. What matters, from a legal perspective, is whether someone committed fraud, theft, or some other crime.

…these sentiments imply that the financial crisis was caused by fraud; that people who take big risks should be subject to a criminal investigation; that executives of large financial firms should be criminal suspects after a crash; that public revulsion indicates likely culpability; that it is inconceivable (to Madoff, anyway) that people could lose so much money absent a conspiracy; and that Wall Street bears collective guilt for which a large part of it should be incarcerated. These assumptions do violence to our system of justice and hinder our understanding of the crisis. The claim that it was “caused by financial fraud” is debatable, but the weight of the evidence is strongly against it.

The only thing I will add is that failure is an integral part of a free market system. When critics say that the financial crisis proves that markets don’t work, they obviously don’t understand that capitalism is a process that continuously provides feedback in the form of profits and losses.

So the fact the people and businesses sometimes lose money is to be expected (indeed, capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell). From a public policy perspective, though, it’s important that people are not encouraged to make dumb decisions with government subsidies – or shielded from the consequences of those poor choices with bailouts.

And that’s why government intervention deserves the overwhelming share of the blame for the financial crisis.

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Most of us have probably heard the joke about the moronic salesman who admitted to losing money on each sale but was hoping to make it up with higher volume.

E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post is taking this financial approach to a new level. His column today asserts the auto bailout was a success and he celebrates the supposed efficiency and competence of big government.

Don’t expect to see a lot of newspapers and Web sites with this headline: “Big Government Bailout Worked.” But it would be entirely accurate. …Far too little attention has been paid to the success of the government’s rescue of the Detroit-based auto companies, and almost no attention has been paid to how completely and utterly wrong bailout opponents were when they insisted it was doomed to failure. …Government failure gets a lot of coverage. That’s useful because government should be held accountable for its mistakes. What’s not okay is that we hear very little when government acts competently and even creatively. For if mistakes teach lessons, successes teach lessons, too.

So was the auto bailout a success? That’s certainly Dionne’s spin. He sets the bar at a very low level. Basically, if GM is still in business and every so often has a profitable quarter, he wants us to believe the bailout was a giant success.

Libertarians, by contrast, set the bar very high. They would say the bailout is a failure, regardless of GM’s status, because it relied on the coercive power of the government to steer capital in ways that reward failure and exacerbate moral hazard.

The average person presumably is more lenient, and will say the bailout is a success if GM returns to profitability, all the taxpayer money is repaid, and the company isn’t relying on special handouts.

By this “average-person” standard, the GM bailout is a failure. Yes, the company is still in business, but only because of huge handouts, special tax treatment, and the ability to screw creditors. In other  words, GM is sort of like the ethanol industry, kept afloat with other people’s money. Indeed, GM is even worse since (so far as I know) companies like ADM get handouts and special tax loopholes for ethanol, but don’t have the ability to renege on their debts.

So what does all this mean? Nobody disagrees with the notion that a money-losing company can be kept alive forever so long as politicians are willing to provide sufficient levels of other people’s money. And that certainly is a good description of what’s happened with GM, but Dionne wants us to see this as a remarkable success for the wisdom of government intervention.

But let’s do an experiment. If the GM bailout is a success, what would happen if we replicated that “success” over and over again. If we lose money on each bailout, can we make it up on volume?

In E.J. Dionne’s fantasy world, the answer is yes. In the real world, we become Greece even faster.

For those that want more information, my Cato colleague Dan Ikenson has some good analysis about the auto bailout here and here, and Megan McArdle dissects the profitability argument here. Mickey Kaus is a must-read on these issues. You can find his discussion of GM’s profitability here, and his discussion of the company’s IPO here.

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I try to visit the Drudge Report  once a day because he has a knack for finding quirky stories. One of his recent gems is a report from the UK-based Sun about an obese man who is suing the government’s healthcare system because he got close to 1200 pounds (assuming I’m right about a “stone” being 17 lbs) before getting weight-loss surgery. [CORRECTION: A "stone" is 14 lbs, so he was close to 1000 lbs]

Man mountain Paul Mason plans to sue the NHS – claiming they ignored his plight as he rocketed towards 70 stone. …Paul said: “I want to set a precedent so no one else has to get to the same size….” At his heaviest Paul was eating 20,000 calories a day – ten times what a normal, healthy man should consume – and the cost of caring for him is thought to have hit £1million in 15 years. …He finally had the £30,000 operation last spring but before it could take place floors at St Richard’s Hospital in Chichester, West Sussex, had to be reinforced at a cost of £5,000 to take his weight.

I’m not a fan of Britain’s wretched health system, but my immediate instinct is to take the side of the NHS and make some snarky comment about personal responsibility. Perhaps, for instance, we should ask Mr. Mason whether a government official was holding a gun to his head and forcing him to eat an average of 20,000 calories every day?

But that’s too easy. So I got to thinking about the public policy issues involved, particularly in the context of second-best solutions. In other words, if I’m not allowed to assume an ideal policy such as the dismantling of the National Health Service and restoration of a genuine free market, how would I deal with the issues raised in this story? There are two difficult questions we have to decide.

The first quiz deals with how to spend taxpayer money, combined with a bit of moral hazard analysis. Which option would you pick?

A. The NHS should have given him the operation right away to save money for the taxpayers in the long run. The operation cost nearly $50,000, but he was already costing taxpayers (I assume) $100,000 every year. Sounds like a smart investment that will pay for itself in just a few years.

or:

B. The NHS should not have given him the operation at all because that is akin to forcing taxpayers to subsidize personal irresponsibility.Moreover, it sends a signal to others that it will be marginally less costly to engage in similar self-destructive behavior. Last but not least, taxpayers probably will still pay through the nose to subsidize Mr. Mason’s annual expenses.

Our other quiz is about Mr. Mason’s lawsuit. As noted above, part of me thinks this case has no merit, but the article notes that it took five years before the NHS got him in the operating room after an initial surgery was canceled. In other words, it appears the lawsuit is happening because of the incompetence and waiting lines of a government healthcare system, so the real issue is the remedy. Which option would you pick?

A. Mr. Mason should win the lawsuit, both to compensate him for the government’s presumed incompetence and to punish the NHS for being so inefficient.

or:

B. Mr. Mason ate his way into trouble, so doesn’t deserve to win his lawsuit. Regarding the NHS, it is horribly inefficient, but any court-imposed damages would just get passed on to taxpayers, so there’s no possible upside.

So how do I answer these questions, assuming the Sun reported all the relevant facts and did so correctly?

For the first question, I reluctantly pick A. I’m guessing that the surgery will somewhat reduce the long-run burden that Mr. Mason is imposing on taxpayers. I realize there’s a genuine moral hazard issue, and that decisions like this make is marginally easier for other people to become morbidly obese (and thus impose costs on taxpayers), but my gut instinct is that surgery is still the best choice from a cost-benefit perspective. Finally, even though I’m not overflowing with sympathy for Mr. Mason, I’m a sucker for happy endings and maybe this will turn his life around.

For the second question, I do realize that governments should not be immune from lawsuits. And I say that even though it galls me that taxpayers pay for any damages awarded, either directly or because tax dollars are used to purchase insurance policies (it would be much better if successful lawsuits meant that damage awards were financed by cuts to agency budgets and/or reduction in bureaucrat pay, but I’m only allowed second-best solutions here). Nonetheless, I still pick B, and I make that choice with a decent degree of confidence. My decision is based two factors. First, I don’t want taxpayers to pay even more just because the government is incompetent. In many cases, that might not matter, but now we come to the second key factor, which is that Mr. Mason’s problems are self-inflicted.

To be sure, a court might be bound by the law rather than what’s right and therefore rule differently, but we already know from a previous blog post that I’m not similarly constrained.

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The fiscal disintegration of Europe is bad news, though I confess to a bit of malicious glee every time I read about welfare states such as Greece, Ireland, and Portugal getting to the point where they no longer have the ability to borrow enough money to finance their bloated public sectors. This I-told-you-so attitude is not very mature on my part, but at least one hopes that American politicians will learn the right lessons.

Even though this is a big issue, I have not written much about the topic, in part because I don’t have much to add to my original post about this issue back in February. All the arguments I made then are still true, particularly about the moral hazard of bailouts and the economic damage of rewarding excessive government. So why bother repeating myself, particularly since this is an issue for Europeans to solve (or, as is their habit, to make worse)?

Unfortunately, it appears that all of us need to pay closer attention to this issue. The Obama Administration apparently thinks American taxpayers should subsidize European profligacy. Here’s a passage from a Reuters report about a potential bailout for Europe via the IMF.

The United States would be ready to support the extension of the European Financial Stability Facility via an extra commitment of money from the International Monetary Fund, a U.S. official told Reuters on Wednesday. “There are a lot of people talking about that. I think the European Commission has talked about that,” said the U.S. official, commenting on enlarging the 750 billion euro ($980 billion) EU/IMF European stability fund. “It is up to the Europeans. We will certainly support using the IMF in these circumstances.” “There are obviously some severe market problems,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “In May, it was Greece. This is Ireland and Portugal. If there is contagion that’s a huge problem for the global economy.”

This issue will be an interesting test for the GOP. I think it’s safe to say that the Tea Party movement didn’t elect Republicans so they could expand the culture of bailouts – especially if that means handouts for profligate European governments. Some people will argue that American taxpayers aren’t at risk because this would be a bailout from the IMF instead of the Treasury. But that’s an absurd and dishonest assertion. The United States is the largest “shareholder” in that international bureaucracy, and there’s no way the IMF can get more involved without American support.

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I have the “opposing view” column in USA Today this morning, and my job was to explain why the politicians who voted for the Wall Street bailout deserve the scorn of voters. I made two points. First, there was no need to bail out specific firms – even if one thought the government needed to inject capital in the system. Second, it is grotesquely immoral to use the coercive power of the state to take money from poor people and give it to rich people.
Beltway insiders and members of the political establishment are mourning these developments, asserting that the TARP martyrs are noble and courageous officials who did the right thing despite the risk to their careers. The obvious implication is that ordinary voters are a bunch of yokels who did not understand the steps that were needed to rescue the financial system and the economy from collapse. This self-serving narrative is wrong. The anger at TARP is not because it injected money into the financial system. Voters are upset because funds were used to bail out specific companies. Defenders of the status quo claim this was a necessary feature of rescuing the entire system, but that is false. Politicians had the option of choosing the “FDIC resolution” approach, which also injects capital into the banking system but only as part of liquidating insolvent institutions. This means that existing management and shareholders get wiped out. Indeed, this is precisely what happened with Washington Mutual and IndyMac. And it was the approach that was used during the savings-and-loan bailout 20 years ago. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. resolution approach should have been used with all insolvent institutions, regardless of how many lobbyists they employed or how much campaign cash they had funneled to Washington. TARP was also a terrible piece of legislation because it meant that politicians, rather than market forces, determined which companies survived. It also was a moral abomination. Government-coerced redistribution is never a good idea, but the worst type of welfare is when poor people are forced to subsidize rich people.

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Nicole Gelinas has been one of the most astute observers of how government has screwed up the financial system and her column in the Washington Examiner is an excellent summary of why the Dodd-Frank bill is a step in the wrong direction. 
For 25 years, Washington has done everything in its power to subsidize Americans’ profligate borrowing habits. Debt became the fuel for economic growth. Washington subsidized the financial industry’s borrowing through implicit guarantees against loss. The feds first started rescuing creditors to “too big to fail” banks in 1984. Since then, it’s become clear to lenders — Wall Street’s global bondholders and trading counterparties — that the government would save them anytime a large financial firm foundered. Indemnified against losses, bondholders could lend nearly infinitely to Wall Street. Wall Street found creative ways to lend that money right back to the public, through mortgage brokers and credit card marketers. …The Dodd-Frank bill is a monument to the status quo. Despite promises that the bill will end bailouts, it enshrines bailouts into law. It provides for an “orderly liquidation authority,” for example, which allows “systemically important” financial firms to escape bankruptcy and to escape, too, consistent losses for their creditors. It also sets up a fast-track procedure through which the White House can ask Congress for guarantees for Wall Street’s lenders in a future crisis. In effect, the government is saying to Wall Street’s lenders: Carry on as you did before 2008. Ordinary Americans, though, understand that they can’t go on as before. Since 2008, they’ve started paying their debt back. The process is painful. As Americans borrow less, they spend less and pay less for houses. But as Americans pare back their debt, the economy will begin to heal permanently. As house prices fall, for example, because less borrowed money exists to send them higher, Americans will have more money left over after paying the mortgage. They can invest that money in the stock market for retirement. Those funds, in turn, will go to entrepreneurs who create jobs outside of the financial industry. The Dodd-Frank bill would pervert this healthy process. It would pit Washington’s too-big-to-fail subsidies and Wall Street’s creativity against Americans who are trying to do the right thing for themselves and the country.

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The politicians are urging big taxes on banks, using rhetoric designed to trick people into thinking that this is a way to make the banks pay for their own bailouts. But a general tax on all banks simply means that well-run banks subsidize the reckless banks – a problem that may get worse over time because of the moral hazard problems that seem to get worse every time politicians get more power over the industry. Greg Mankiw of Harvard has a more appealing idea, which would require automatic conversion of bonds to equity when a bank gets in trouble. This means, for all intents and purposes, that a bank would only be in a position of bailing itself out, so there is no risky cross-subsidization. And since bondholders presumably would not want to be converted into shareholders, there would be greater incentive to monitor whether the bank is being operated in a prudent manner. I’m not an expert on the specifics of the banking system, so I won’t pretend to know enough to give this my unqualified blessing, but I know it is a far better approach than the blank-check bailout/intervention authority in the legislation on Capitol Hill:

There has been much talk about restricting the use of financial derivatives. Unfortunately, writing good rules is not easy. Derivatives, like fire, can lead to disaster if not handled with care, but they can also be used to good effect. Whatever we do, let’s not be overoptimistic about how successful improved oversight will be. The financial system is diverse and vastly complicated. Government regulators will always be outnumbered and underpaid compared with those whose interest it is to circumvent the regulations. Legislators will often be distracted by other priorities. To believe that the government will ever become a reliable watchdog would be a tragic mistake. …Much focus in Washington has been on expanding the government’s authority to step in when a financial institution is near bankruptcy, and to fix the problem before the institution creates a systemic risk. That makes some sense, but creates risks of its own. If federal authorities are responsible for troubled institutions, creditors may view those institutions as safer than they really are. When problems arise, regulators may find it hard to avoid using taxpayer money. The entire financial system might well become, in essence, a group of government-sponsored enterprises. …My favorite proposal is to require banks, and perhaps a broad class of financial institutions, to sell contingent debt that can be converted to equity when a regulator deems that these institutions have insufficient capital. This debt would be a form of preplanned recapitalization in the event of a financial crisis, and the infusion of capital would be with private, rather than taxpayer, funds. Think of it as crisis insurance. Bankers may balk at this proposal, because it would raise the cost of doing business. The buyers of these bonds would need to be compensated for providing this insurance. But this contingent debt would also give bankers an incentive to limit risk by, say, reducing leverage. The safer these financial institutions are, the less likely the contingency would be triggered and the less they would need to pay for this debt.

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Price fixing is illegal in the private sector, but unfortunately there are no rules against schemes by politicians to create oligopolies in order to prop up bad government policy. The latest example comes from the bureaucrats at the International Monetary Fund, who are conspiring with national governments to impose higher taxes and regulations on the banking sector. The pampered bureaucrats at the IMF (who get tax-free salaries while advocating higher taxes on the rest of us) say these policies are needed because of bailouts, yet such an approach would institutionalize moral hazard by exacerbating the government-created problem of “too big to fail.” But what is particularly disturbing about the latest IMF scheme is that the international bureaucracy wants to coerce all nations into imposing high taxes and excessive regulation. The bureaucrats realize that if some nations are allowed to have free markets, jobs and investment would flow to those countries and expose the foolishness of the bad policy being advocated elsewhere by the IMF. Here’s a brief excerpt from a report in the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Strauss-Kahn said there was broad agreement on the need for consensus and coordination in the reform of the global financial sector. “Even if they don’t follow exactly the same rule, they have to follow rules which will not be in conflict,” he said. He said there were still major differences of opinion on how to proceed, saying that countries whose banking systems didn’t need taxpayer bailouts weren’t willing to impose extra taxation on their banks now, to create a cushion against further financial shocks. …Mr. Strauss-Kahn said the overriding goal was to prevent “regulatory arbitrage”—the migration of banks to places where the burden of tax and regulation is lightest. He said countries with tighter regulation of banks might be able to justify not imposing new taxes.

I’ve been annoyingly repetitious on the importance of making governments compete with each other, largely because the evidence showing that jurisdictional rivalry is a very effective force for good policy around the world. I’ve done videos showing the benefits of tax competition, videos making the economic and moral case for tax havens, and videos exposing the myths and demagoguery of those who want to undermine tax competition. I’ve traveled around the world to fight the international bureaucracies, and even been threatened with arrest for helping low-tax nations resist being bullied by high-tax nations. Simply stated, we need jurisdictional competition so that politicians know that taxpayers can escape fiscal oppression. In the absence of external competition, politicians are like fiscal alcoholics who are unable to resist the temptation to over-tax and over-spend.

This is why the IMF’s new scheme should be resisted. It is not the job of international bureaucracies to interfere with the sovereign right of nations to determine their own tax and regulatory policies. If France and Germany want to adopt statist policies, they should have that right. Heck, Obama wants America to make similar mistakes. But Hong Kong, Switzerland, the Cayman Islands, and other market-oriented jurisdictions should not be coerced into adopting the same misguided policies.

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I get a lot of email asking me about Greece, especially since I don’t give the issue much attention on the blog. I am paying close attention to what’s happening, especially since Greece is a canary in the coal mine. But I generally try to avoid being repetitious, and anything I say now would replicate what I said in my initial blog post in February. Simply stated, if you subsidize bad behavior, you get more bad behavrior. But now that a bailout request is official, I suppose some additional commentary is appropriate. The editorial page of today’s Wall Street Journal has some solid analysis on how rewarding Greece will exacerbate rather than solve Europe’s fiscal problems:

…a bailout would, of course, end nothing. What it would do instead is open a wide new world of moral hazard—for Greece, for the countries providing aid, and for the future of the entire euro-zone. The Greek government has played the victim for all it’s worth over the past several months, insisting that the same credit markets that finance its extravagant spending were charging too much in interest. But on Thursday, following another upward revision to its budget deficit, bond yields soared and forced Mr. Papandreou’s capitulation. … a bailout comes with baleful consequences for the entire euro-zone. Further austerity demanded as a quid pro quo might take some domestic political heat off Mr. Papandreou, but the IMF’s policy history does not bode well for future economic growth. The EU countries expected to shell out €30 billion for Greece have their own debt challenges. If Greece is bailed out, the markets will rightly conclude that a line has been crossed, and that Portugal and even Spain will be rescued too. Even the Germans don’t have that much money. …Mr. Schäuble is so worried about Berlin’s finances that he opposes tax cuts for Germans, but he nonetheless wants to bail out a spendthrift Greece. …Greece represents only 2% of euro-zone GDP. While European banks would take losses on any Greek debt restructuring, those losses would not by themselves be catastrophic. But that wouldn’t be true if the sovereign debt panic spreads to Portugal and Spain. Far better for the EU to draw the line now, force Greece and its creditors to take their pain, and demonstrate to markets that there won’t be a rolling series of bailouts. To adapt Mr. Schäuble’s Lehman analogy, better to stop the moral hazard at Bear Stearns, lest Spain become Lehman Brothers.

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As usual, some very sound thoughts - on both the value-added tax and the income tax – from George Will:

When liberals advocate a value-added tax, conservatives should respond: Taxing consumption has merits, so we will consider it — after the 16th Amendment is repealed. A VAT will be rationalized as necessary to restore fiscal equilibrium. But without ending the income tax, a VAT would be just a gargantuan instrument for further subjugating Americans to government. …Because the income tax is not broadly based, it radiates moral hazard: Its incentives are for perverse behavior. The top 1% of earners provide 40% of that tax’s receipts; the top 5% provide 61%; the bottom 50% provide 3%. So the tax makes a substantial majority complacent about government’s growth. Increasingly, the income tax is codified envy. A VAT is the political class’s recourse when the resources of the minority that is targeted by the envious are insufficient to finance ravenous government.

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As I noted a few days ago, Paulson’s bailout was the worst possible way to do a bad thing. To the extent that the government had to inject money into the financial system, I explained, it would have been far better to use the “FDIC Resolution” approach, which at least addresses the moral hazard issue by wiping out shareholders and getting rid of incompetent management. Paul Volcker made the same point in yesterday’s New York Times:

The phrase “too big to fail” has entered into our everyday vocabulary. It carries the implication that really large, complex and highly interconnected financial institutions can count on public support at critical times. The sense of public outrage over seemingly unfair treatment is palpable. Beyond the emotion, the result is to provide those institutions with a competitive advantage in their financing, in their size and in their ability to take and absorb risks. …To meet the possibility that failure of such institutions may nonetheless threaten the system, the reform proposals of the Obama administration and other governments point to the need for a new “resolution authority.” Specifically, the appropriately designated agency should be authorized to intervene in the event that a systemically critical capital market institution is on the brink of failure. The agency would assume control for the sole purpose of arranging an orderly liquidation or merger. Limited funds would be made available to maintain continuity of operations while preparing for the demise of the organization. To help facilitate that process, the concept of a “living will” has been set forth by a number of governments. Stockholders and management would not be protected. Creditors would be at risk, and would suffer to the extent that the ultimate liquidation value of the firm would fall short of its debts. To put it simply, in no sense would these capital market institutions be deemed “too big to fail.” What they would be free to do is to innovate, to trade, to speculate, to manage private pools of capital — and as ordinary businesses in a capitalist economy, to fail.

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