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Archive for the ‘Financial Crisis’ Category

Governor Romney’s campaign is catching some flak because a top aide implied that many of the candidate’s positions have been insincere and that Romney will erase those views (like an Etch-a-Sketch) and return to his statist roots as the general election begins.

I’m surprised that anyone’s surprised.  Hasn’t anybody been paying attention to his comments and track record on issues such as the  value-added tax, healthcare, Social Security reform, budget savings, ethanol subsidies, Keynesian economics, and the minimum wage?

In any event, people should be more agitated by his recent defense of the corrupt TARP bailouts.

Here are the key sections of a report from NBC Politics.

Mitt Romney offered an unprompted defense of the 2008 Wall Street bailout on Wednesday, crediting President George W. Bush and the preceding administration for averting an economic depression. …”There was a fear that the whole economic system of America would collapse — that all of our banks, or virtually all, would go out of business,” Romney said. “In that circumstance, President Bush and Hank Paulson said we’ve got to do something to show we’re not going to let the whole system go out of business. I think they were right. I know some people disagree with me. I think they were right to do that.”

I can understand how some politicians got panicked back in 2008 by some of the reckless and inflammatory rhetoric that Bush, Paulson, and others used to build support  for their bailout plan.

But it’s now become more and more obvious that there was a much better alternative (as I explained in this post giving Cheney a kick in the pants), involving a process known as FDIC resolution.

That approach would have recapitalized the banking system without the corruption, favoritism, and moral hazard that characterized the TARP bailout.

"Which one of us is Tweedledee?"

I don’t know whether Romney doesn’t understand this, hasn’t bothered to learn about the issue, or simply thinks it is good politics to be pro-bailout, but it doesn’t matter. There is no good explanation for his actions.

This is going to be a miserable and depressing election season, revolving around whether the nation should replace a statist who calls himself a Democrat with a statist who calls himself a Republican.

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I’ve always admired the English sense of humor, and this post on terrorism alerts is a good example.

In that spirit, here’s something that just arrived in my inbox, originally from this website.

For your reading enjoyment, a financial glossary for modern times, including in many cases an example of how the term should be used.

BANK, n. Bottomless cavity in the ground that sucks in money and the unwary.
I had quite a bit of money but then I put it in the bank.

BOND, n. A profitless contrivance used for catching the gullible or feeble-minded.
That pension fund is 100% in bonds now.

BROKER, adj. A comparative descriptive state for a client of a Wall Street bank.
He didn’t exactly have a lot of money before he started dealing with Goldman Sachs. Now he’s even broker.

BUBBLE, n. Fundamental prerequisite for a functioning Anglo-Saxon economy.
We need a new bubble to replace the ones we had in dotcom and property.

CENTRAL BANK, n. Lobbyist for commercial banks well versed in alchemy.

CURRENCY, n. Largely intangible substance with an inherent property that tends to instantaneous evaporation, the destruction of life and the permanent impairment of wealth.
I had money once but then I exchanged it for currency in a moment of madness.

DEFAULT, n. Semi-mythical celestial occurrence that passes by Earth every 76 years.
I was worried for a second about that Greek default, but I realise there’s nothing to see now and all is well.

FEDERAL RESERVE, n. A wholly owned subsidiary of Goldman Sachs.
The Federal Reserve voted to give a few more billion dollars to Wall Street.

GREECE, n. An undesirable or unfortunate happening that occurs unintentionally but results in harm, injury, damage and colossal loss of wealth. And profits for Goldman Sachs.
Did you see Greece ? Sheesh.

HORLICK, n. Progressive and insufficiently appreciated investment visionary.

HOUSE, n. In most countries, simply a place to live. In Britain, a theoretically infinite source of perpetual tax revenue for deluded Lib Dems.¹
(¹This is tautological. – Ed.)

INVESTOR, n. Plucky protagonist admired for brave deeds and quixotic struggling who is about to get shafted by Wall Street interests.
I was an investor in euro zone sovereign bonds but then everything went Greek.

JAPAN, n. Where hopes of profit go to die.

KEYNES, n. Slang: Vulgar. Disparaging and offensive.
That joker Posen is a complete Keynes.

POLITICIAN, n. Someone better informed than you about how to spend your money.

RATINGS AGENCY, n. A professional entertainer who amuses by relating absurd and fantastical tales.
That ratings agency’s credit assessment was so funny, I had to change my trousers.

RESTRUCTURING, n. Statutory rape.
Those bondholders are undergoing a voluntary restructuring – you might even call it a ‘credit event’.

ROGUE TRADER, n. Unprofitable proprietary trader. (Hat-tip to Killian Connolly.)

SOCIETY, n. The process whereby wealth is diverted from taxpayers to banks.

TAXPAYER, n. Simple-minded dolt too foolish to be working for the government.

US GOVERNMENT, n. Another wholly owned subsidiary of Goldman Sachs.
We seem to be running out of Goldman Sachs alumni here in the Treasury. No, wait, we’ve still got hundreds of ‘em.

VINCE CABLE, n. (No longer in technical use; considered offensive) a person of the lowest order in a former and discarded classification of mental retardation.
Don’t be a Vince Cable – get down off that wardrobe and come and eat your tea!

Here’s one last joke that I assume was concocted by someone in England.

Also from the U.K., here are two youtube videos, one on the “end of the world in 3 minutes” (might be Australian, but close enough) and the other on the “subprime crisis.”

P.S. I have no idea who or what a “Horlick” is, but I can give you this clue and this clue about Vince Cable.

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Whenever I narrate videos lasting longer than nine minutes, such as my three videos on tax havens or my video on international corporate taxation, I often get backhanded compliments along the lines of “that was good, but it would be even better if you said it in five minutes.”

So it is with considerable envy that I offer up this video about Europe’s fiscal/financial/monetary mess. Even though it lasts longer than nine minutes, I suspect it will keep everyone’s attention.

I’m not fully endorsing the contents of the video. Mr. McWilliams, for instance, probably has a confused IMF-type definition of austerity. But I definitely agree with him that policy is driven by the interests of the elite.

In any event, the production values of the video are first rate. Perhaps not in the same league as Part I and Part II of the Hayek v Keynes video set, but still remarkably well done.

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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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There’s always been a simple and desirable solution to Europe’s fiscal crisis, but nobody in Europe wants to do the right thing because it means admitting the failure of big government and it would result in less power for the political elite.

So we get the spectacle of never-ending emergency summits as the political class blindly searches for some magical solution. Not surprisingly, the “solution” concocted by the latest gathering is not getting good reviews.

Here’s what Ambrose Evans-Pritchard wrote in the Daily Telegraph.

What remarkable petulance and stupidity. The leaders of France and Germany have more or less bulldozed Britain out of the European Union for the sake of a treaty that offers absolutely no solution to the crisis at hand, or indeed any future crisis. It is EU institutional chair shuffling at its worst, with venom for good measure. …There is no shared debt issuance, no fiscal transfers, no move to an EU Treasury, no banking licence for the ESM rescue fund, and no change in the mandate of the European Central Bank.

And here’s what Felix Salmon wrote for Reuters.

It all adds up to one of the most disastrous summits imaginable. A continent which has risen to multiple occasions over the past 66 years has, in 2011, decided to implode in a spectacle of pathetic ignominy. …Europe’s leaders have set a course which leads directly to a gruesome global recession, before we’ve even recovered from the last one. Europe can’t afford that; America can’t afford that; the world can’t afford that. But the hopes of arriving anywhere else have never been dimmer.

So why is everybody upset? For the simple reason that the supposed “solution” doesn’t address the immediate problem.

Europe’s short-run crisis is that the fear of default. Simply stated, governments have squandered so much money that they are now deeply in debt. As a result, investors no longer trust that they will get paid back (either on time or in full) if they buy bonds from various governments.

This is why interest rates on government debt are climbing and nations such as Greece, Ireland, and Portugal already have received direct bailouts. Moreover, the European Central Bank has been engaging in indirect bailouts of other welfare states such as Spain and Italy.

But these direct and indirect bailouts have simply made the debt bubble bigger.

Yet the new agreement from Europe’s political elite doesn’t deal with this crisis. Simply stated, there is no short-run bailout strategy, not even one that kicks the can down the road.

There are only four ways of dealing with the mess in Europe, one good and three bad.

1. No bailouts, thus forcing nations to do the right thing (like the Baltics) or letting them default. This imposes the costs on the people who created the mess, addresses the short-run crisis, and promotes good long-run policy.

2. Crank up the proverbial printing presses and have the European Central Bank buy up most of Europe’s dodgy debt. This imposes the costs on all consumers, addresses the short-run crisis, and promotes bad long-run policy.

3. Have the Germans (and some other northern Europeans) guarantee the debt of the less-stable welfare states, either through Euro-bonds or some other mechanism. This imposes the costs on taxpayers in Germany and other nations that have been more prudent, addresses the short-run crisis, and promotes bad long-run policy.

4. Have the Americans and the rest of the world bail out Europe’s welfare states via the International Monetary Fund. This imposes the costs on the entire world (with U.S. taxpayers picking up the biggest part of the tab), addresses the short-run crisis, and promotes bad long-run policy.

In a remarkable display of ignoring the elephant in the middle of the room, none of these options was selected.

Some people claim that the third option was used, but that’s whistling past the graveyard. Yes, there will be a €500 billion bail-out fund called the European Stability Mechanism at some point next year, but that simply replaces the current €440 billion European Financial Stability Facility. And nobody thinks the third option will be successful unless there is a multi-trillion euro bailout fund.

So if Europe’s politicians didn’t agree to deal with the problem, either with good policy or bad policy, what exactly did they do?

The agreement uses the short-run fiscal crisis as an excuse to propose permanent changes that will erode national sovereignty and impose more centralization, more harmonization, and more bureaucratization.

One can argue, though not very persuasively, that these changes will reduce the likelihood of fiscal crises in the future. But that’s not the same thing as coming up with a policy – good or bad – to deal with the immediate problem.

I’m not an expert on investing money, but I definitely won’t be surprised if financial markets (including the investors who want bad policy so they can be bailed out) react negatively to this latest faux agreement.

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Earlier this month, I took part in an online debate for U.S. News & World Report about whether Europe or the United States was in deeper fiscal trouble.

I wrote that Europe faced a bigger mess, though I warned that the United States was making the same mistakes of costly and inefficient welfare-state policies and that we would follow them into fiscal crisis if we didn’t reform programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

More important (at least to my fragile ego), I asked people to vote for the best presentation and I’m happy to say that I now have a huge lead in the voting.

Now there’s a new debate topic. I have squared off against a statist on the topic of bailouts. Here’s some of what I wrote.

The Bush-Obama policies of bailouts and regulation have been bad for taxpayers, but they’ve also been bad for the economy. A vibrant and dynamic economy requires the possibility of big profits, but also the discipline of failure. Indeed, capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell. …Especially when the government adopts bad policies that cause a housing bubble, such as easy money from the Federal Reserve and corrupt subsidies from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. …Some people argue that America had no choice but to bail out Wall Street and the financial services industry. …Either through ignorance or corruption, they falsely assert that company-specific bailouts were necessary to recapitalize the financial sector. Nonsense. It is a relatively simple matter for a government to put a financial institution in receivership, hold all depositors harmless, and then sell off the assets. Alternatively, the government can pay a healthy institution to absorb an insolvent institution. This is what America did during the savings & loan bailouts 20 years ago. It’s also what happened with IndyMac and WaMu during the recent financial crisis. And it’s what the Swedish government basically did in the early 1990s when that nation had a financial crisis. …If this policy makes sense and has worked before, why does the crowd in Washington prefer bailouts? At the risk of being cynical, the politicians don’t like the FDIC-resolution approach because it means no giveaways for shareholders, bondholders, and senior managers. And that would require stiff-arming big campaign contributors.

If you agree, you can vote for me by clicking the “mic” button near the top of the page. And, to be fair, you can also vote for bailouts and regulation on the page featuring my opponent’s article.

The debate just started yesterday and I’m currently trailing 14-12 (as of 8:57 EDT), so get your Chicago voter registration cards and vote early and vote often.

If I can win this debate, it will help ease the trauma of losing the stimulus debate in New York City.

Though I’m not sure what this would say about me. I got a big win last year in my US News & World Report debate on the flat tax, so perhaps the lesson to be learned is that I should only take part in online debates rather than appear in person.

Sort of like having a face for radio, I guess.

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A couple of months ago, after reading an excellent column in the semi-official newspaper of the Vatican, I joked that we should send Obama to Rome for an economics lesson.

I now completely retract that statement. There may be some economically astute people who write for L’Osservatore Romano, but they are offset by the economic illiterates at the Vatican’s Justice and Peace department.

Here are some excerpts from Reuters about the spectacularly misguided thinking from this division of the Catholic Church. For all intents and purposes, they want to double down on the cross-subsidization policies that have undermined markets and crippled the global economy.

The Vatican called on Monday for the establishment of a “global public authority” and a “central world bank” to rule over financial institutions that have become outdated and often ineffective in dealing fairly with crises. The document from the Vatican’s Justice and Peace department should please the “Occupy Wall Street” demonstrators and similar movements around the world who have protested against the economic downturn. “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of a Global Public Authority,” was at times very specific, calling, for example, for taxation measures on financial transactions. …It condemned what it called “the idolatry of the market” as well as a “neo-liberal thinking” that it said looked exclusively at technical solutions to economic problems. “In fact, the crisis has revealed behaviours like selfishness, collective greed and hoarding of goods on a great scale,” it said, adding that world economics needed an “ethic of solidarity” among rich and poor nations. …It called for the establishment of “a supranational authority” with worldwide scope and “universal jurisdiction” to guide economic policies and decisions.

Wow. So many bad ideas in so few words.

Let’s look at the three main proposals and translate what they actually mean.

1. A “global public authority” is bureaucrat-speak for a world government. We’re already dealing with statist schemes like the OECD’s “Multilateral Convention” that will morph into an International Tax Organization. A supra-national government would be even worse since it would have power to wreck all sectors of the economy. These proposals are driven by the left’s desire for bureaucratization, harmonization, and centralization.

2. A “Central World Bank” is bureaucrat-speak for a Federal Reserve on steroids. But it would be even worse than that. In the current system, at least investors have the ability to dump dollars and euros and shift to currencies that are better managed, such as the Swiss Franc. A supra-national Fed, by contrast, will give the political elite more power to pursue bad monetary policy.

3. The notion of “taxation measures on financial transactions” is bureaucrat-speak for the Tobin Tax, which is a great scam for politicians since they would get to tax every transaction we make. If you think it is a good idea to put sand in the gears of the economy, sign up for this scheme. This idea is so bad that even the Obama Administration is opposed to it.

Last but not least, I’m flabbergasted by the report’s comments on the “idolatry of the market.”

What planet have these people been living on?

Do they blame the market for the financial crisis, when the mess was the result of the Federal Reserve, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and government-created moral hazard? Do they blame the market for the sovereign-debt crisis, when the mess is the result of over-spending governments?

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I have no idea whether George Santayana was a good philosopher, but he certainly was right when he wrote, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Consider the fools in the U.S. Senate. They just voted to expand Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac subsidies, apparently thinking that re-inflating the housing bubble would be a good idea when every sensible person thinks we should abolish these government-created entities.

Here are some blurbs from the Business Week story.

The U.S. Senate adopted a measure that would raise the maximum size of a home loan backed by mortgage companies Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration to $729,750. Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, offered the increase as an amendment to a spending bill today. The measure was approved less than a month after the limit on so-called conforming loans was automatically reduced to $625,500. …The Senate adopted the amendment 60-31. The amendment required 60 votes for approval and was offered during the chamber’s consideration of a package of spending measures. If the Senate passes the underlying bill, the House would then have to vote for it to become law. …The limits, which vary by locale, apply to loans backed by the FHA and government-controlled mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which together buy or guarantee about 90 percent of all residential home loans.

For what it’s worth, every Democrat voted for the measure, as well as these Republicans.

Blunt – Missouri

Brown – Massachusetts

Chambliss – Georgia

Graham – South Carolina

Heller – Nevada

Isakson – Georgia

Murkowski – Alaska

Snowe – Maine

Maybe these feckless and irresponsible jokers should spend a bit of time reading Peter Wallison’s work. And here’s a George Will column if they can’t comprehend anything longer than 800 words.

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I would have structured this flowchart differently, for reasons I discuss in this post, but this is pretty good picture of why Europe is in trouble.

They say all roads lead to Rome, and this flowchart shows all roads lead to a banking crisis (see this post to understand why).

But not all banking crises are created equal. A bailout (the left column) would inflate the debt bubble and make the ultimate crisis much more devastating.

Cutting Greece loose (the middle column) is the best approach, in part because it would have a sobering effect on other European nations that would like to mooch off the European Union (German taxpayers) or International Monetary Fund (American taxpayers).

Just imagine, by the way, how much better things would be today if Greece had been unable to access bailout money and instead had been forced to spend the last two years implementing real reform. That’s why I stand by everything I wrote in my first post about the Greek mess.

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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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One almost feels sorry for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

He’s a punchline in his own country because he oversees the IRS even though he conveniently forgot to declare $80,000 of income (and managed to get away with punishment that wouldn’t even qualify as a slap on the wrist).

Now he’s becoming a a bit of a joke in Europe. Earlier this month, a wide range of European policy makers basically told the Treasury Secretary to take a long walk off a short pier when he tried to offer advice on Europe’s fiscal crisis.

And the latest development is that the German Finance Minister basically said Geithner was “stupid” for a new bailout scheme. Here’s an excerpt from the UK-based Daily Telegraph.

Germany and America were on a collision course on Tuesday night over the handling of Europe’s debt crisis after Berlin savaged plans to boost the EU rescue fund as a “stupid idea” and told the White House to sort out its own mess before giving gratuitous advice to others.German finance minister Wolfgang Schauble said it would be a folly to boost the EU’s bail-out machinery (EFSF) beyond its €440bn lending limit by deploying leverage to up to €2 trillion, perhaps by raising funds from the European Central Bank.”I don’t understand how anyone in the European Commission can have such a stupid idea. The result would be to endanger the AAA sovereign debt ratings of other member states. It makes no sense,” he said.

All that’s missing in the story is Geithner channeling his inner Forrest Gump and responding that “Stupid is as stupid does.”

…at birth?

Separated…

This little spat reminds me of the old saying that there is no honor among thieves. Geithner wants to do the wrong thing. The German government wants to do the wrong thing. And every other European government wants to do the wrong thing. They’re merely squabbling over the best way of picking German pockets to subsidize the collapsing welfare states of Southern Europe.

But that’s actually not accurate. German politicians don’t really want to give money to the Greeks and Portuguese.

The real story of the bailouts is that politicians from rich nations are trying to indirectly protect their banks, which – as shown in this chart – are in financial trouble because they foolishly thought lending money to reckless welfare states was a risk-free exercise.

Europe’s political class claims that bailouts are necessary to prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis, but this is nonsense – much as American politicians were lying (or bamboozled) when they supported TARP.

It is a relatively simple matter for a government to put a bank in receivership, hold all depositors harmless, and then sell off the assets. Or to subsidize the takeover of an insolvent institution. This is what America did during the savings & loan bailouts 20 years ago. Heck, it’s also what happened with IndyMac and WaMu during the recent financial crisis. And it’s what the Swedish government basically did in the early 1990s when that nation had a financial crisis.

But politicians don’t like this “FDIC-resolution” approach because it means wiping out shareholders, bondholders, and senior management of institutions that made bad economic choices. And that would mean reducing moral hazard rather than increasing it. And it would mean stiff-arming campaign contributors and protecting the interests of taxpayers.

Heaven forbid those things happen. After all, as Bastiat told us, “Government is the great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.”

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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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Last year, after seeing former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson trying to defend the TARP bailout he designed, I wrote that he should go away in shame.

After all, even former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker recognized there was a much better, non-corrupt, way of recapitalizing the financial sector – what is known as FDIC resolution.

I’m now even more disappointed that the former Vice President, Dick Cheney, defended the TARP bailout in his memoirs.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney anticipated the conservative uproar over the 2008 Wall Street rescue package, and he writes in his new memoir that the Bush administration “briefly” considered not seeking congressional authorization for the $700 billion bank bailout. …The former vice president writes that he signed on immediately to the plan devised by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, despite his reservations about the intense government intervention into the financial sector. “There was no other option,” Cheney writes in the memoir, In My Time.

But Cheney is completely wrong. There was another option. The FDIC-resolution approach, which was basically how the government handled the S&L crisis about 20 years ago, was the right policy.

And I must have talked to about 10 people in the Bush Administration in September 2008, trying to get them to go with that approach.

I was told that wasn’t possible since congressional approval would have been needed to increase the FDIC’s financial resources. Knowing that the White House was going to ask for something (and fearing they would do something really bad), I responded that they should seek that authority.

As was usual during the Bush years, my fears were justified. My advice was ignored and the Administration chose the corrupt and damaging approach – an approach the Obama Administration has happily continued.

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The governments of Spain, Italy, Belgium and (of course) France recently imposed 15-day bans on “short selling,” which means they are prohibiting people from making investments that would be profitable if certain stocks fall in value.

According to the politicians, the bans are being imposed to protect financial markets from “speculators” who cause “panics” by “betting” in favor of bad news.

But this type of regulatory intervention doesn’t seem very effective, at least if the U.S. and U.K. experiences are any guide. Here’s an excerpt from a Bloomberg report.

British financial stocks dropped 41 percent in the four months after regulators imposed a ban on short selling following the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. in September 2008. The benchmark FTSE 100 index fell 15 percent in the period. When the Securities and Exchange Commission prohibited short-sales for three weeks in September 2008 a Bloomberg Index tracking the 880 U.S. stocks affected fell 26 percent, outpacing the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index’s 22 percent decline. …“In contrast to the regulators’ hopes, the overall evidence indicates that short-selling bans at best left stock prices unaffected and at worst may have contributed to their decline,” said Alessandro Beber, a professor at Cass Business School in London who’s studied short-sales bans in 30 countries. …“EU policy makers don’t seem to understand the law of unintended consequences,” Jim Chanos, the short seller known for predicting Enron Corp.’s collapse, said by e-mail. “The vast majority of short-selling financial shares is by other financial institutions, hedging their counterparty risks, not speculators. The interbank lending market froze up completely in October to December 2008 — after the short-selling bans.”

Beber’s research (cited in the excerpt above) has been confirmed by other scholars. Simply stated, if investors realize that something is over-valued, it is going to fall in price. Governments can hinder and delay that process, thus increasing volatility and uncertainty, but they can’t stop it.

But here’s a very big reason why these laws are stupid (at least from my amateur perspective*). Most rational people presumably would agree that the housing and financial bubbles of the last decade were a bad thing. But most of us know it was a bad thing because we have 20-20 hindsight.

But what if there were lots of people back in 2005, 2006, and 2007 who recognized a bad thing as it was happening? And what if they had the ability to deflate the bubble (or at least slow its increase) by making investments that assumed housing and finance were heading for a fall?

We could have saved ourselves a lot of economic misery if that was the case. Heck, short sellers probably did save us from a lot of additional economic agony by stopping the bubbles from getting even bigger.

In other words, short sellers are the good guys. To some extent, they put a damper on “irrational exuberance” and therefore reduce the subsequent economic damage.

But don’t believe me. Here are some sage words from Cliff Asness.

…what goes through the minds of the politicians and bureaucrats and what do they say to themselves? Perhaps it’s the following: “What this crisis absolutely requires is that a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part and we’re just the guys to do it.” It was funny when Bluto said it in “Animal House.” …So, they decide to outlaw shorting in a giant number of stocks… Never mind that the short sellers were in many cases the heroes who uncovered much of the ugliness in the financial system that needed uncovering. The government’s actions here will unambiguously hurt our capital markets and economy long-term. …At the risk of restating the obvious, short-sellers play a vital role in any free market. In a world where everyone can only hold long positions, managers have less incentive to work hard, improve stale business models or keep their companies competitive and efficient (sound anything like government bureaucracy?). Short-sellers keep companies, managers and markets honest, and without them the disciplining mechanism is much weaker.

By the way, Asness made those comments back in 2008, and his analysis was confirmed by subsequent events.

Andrew Lilico, meanwhile, is equally astute in his analysis.

Short-sellers make money by identifying situations in which the world is worse than the Market thinks. They expose cases where managements or governments are disorganised or lying or have themselves been deceived. Given the events of the past few years, it would seem very foolish to try to deter people from properly analysing companies or governments to see whether they might actually be less robust than they claim. Surely we want more such analysis, not less! …short-selling (and other forms of speculation) are extremely valuable. They improve market efficiency…and they expose errors made by the management of companies and by governments, early, when those companies and governments might still have a chance to rectify things. Banning short-selling is a classic case of shooting the messenger because one does not like the truth he tells.

The bans on short selling are classic examples of Mitchell’s Law. Politicians do stupid things such as bad monetary policy and corrupt housing subsidies. Those misguided policies cause bubbles that eventually pop. But rather than learn that bad policies are foolish, they use the economic damage as an excuse to implement additional forms of intervention such as short-selling bans. The only constant is that the political class gains more power and control.

* Caveat: I’m only commenting on public policy, not how you should invest your money. I’m only a policy wonk. I know less about financial markets than Barack Obama knows about economics

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Welcome Instapundit readers. Here’s a related link if you want to get even more depressed about politicians digging the debt hole deeper.

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If you want to understand how government intervention screws up markets and damages an economy, there are two new publications worth reading. First, pick up a copy of Reckless Endangerment, a new book by Gretchen Morgenson of the New York Times, and Joshua Rosner, an expert on housing finance.

I’ll confess I haven’t read the book, but it’s on my list based on two columns. Here’s some of what George Will wrote after giving it a read.

The book’s subtitle could be: “Cry ‘Compassion’ and Let Slip the Dogs of Cupidity.” Or: “How James Johnson and Others (Mostly Democrats) Made the Great Recession.” The book is another cautionary tale about government’s terrifying self-confidence. It is, the authors say, “a story of what happens when Washington decides, in its infinite wisdom, that every living, breathing citizen should own a home.” …“Reckless Endangerment” is a study of contemporary Washington, where showing “compassion” with other people’s money pays off in the currency of political power, and currency. Although Johnson left Fannie Mae years before his handiwork helped produce the 2008 bonfire of wealth, he may be more responsible for the debacle and its still-mounting devastations — of families, endowments, etc. — than any other individual. If so, he may be more culpable for the peacetime destruction of more wealth than any individual in history.

And here is some of what David Brooks wrote, in a column that focused on the sleazy insider corruption exposed by the book.

The Fannie Mae scandal has gotten relatively little media attention because many of the participants are still powerful, admired and well connected. But Gretchen Morgenson, a Times colleague, and the financial analyst Joshua Rosner have rectified that, writing “Reckless Endangerment,” a brave book that exposes the affair in clear and gripping form. The story centers around James Johnson, a Democratic sage with a raft of prestigious connections. …Morgenson and Rosner write with barely suppressed rage, as if great crimes are being committed. But there are no crimes. This is how Washington works. Only two of the characters in this tale come off as egregiously immoral. Johnson made $100 million while supposedly helping the poor. Representative Barney Frank, whose partner at the time worked for Fannie, was arrogantly dismissive when anybody raised doubts about the stability of the whole arrangement. …Johnson roped in some of the most respected establishment names: Bill Daley, Tom Donilan, Joseph Stiglitz, Dianne Feinstein, Kit Bond, Franklin Raines, Larry Summers, Robert Zoellick, Ken Starr and so on. Of course, it all came undone. Underneath, Fannie was a cancer that helped spread risky behavior and low standards across the housing industry. We all know what happened next. The scandal has sent the message that the leadership class is fundamentally self-dealing. Leaders on the center-right and center-left are always trying to create public-private partnerships to spark socially productive activity. But the biggest public-private partnership to date led to shameless self-enrichment and disastrous results.

Not surprisingly, politicians have not addressed the problem, even with the benefit of hindsight. The Dodd-Frank bailout bill, which was supposed to address the problems of the housing crisis/financial crisis, left Fannie and Freddie untouched. The two government-created entities are on life support after their bailouts (speaking of which, here’s a funny cartoon), so this would have been the right moment to drive a stake through their hearts. One can only wonder what damage they will do in the future.

But government intervention in housing is not limited to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. A new report from Pew looks at the panoply of tax preferences for the industry, and analyzes the impact on overall economic performance. There are parts of the report I don’t like, such as the term “subsidies,” which implies that tax distortions are a form of government spending, but I fully agree that tax preferences harm the economy by causing capital to be misallocated.

Investment in owner-occupied housing faces an effective marginal tax rate of just 3.5 percent. In contrast, investment in the business sector faces an effective tax rate of 25.5 percent. This leads to a tax-induced bias for capital to flow into housing-related uses rather than other types of projects. As a result, businesses are less likely to purchase new equipment and less likely to incorporate new technologies than otherwise might be the case. Less business investment results in lower worker productivity and ultimately lower real wages and living standards. While the housing sector provides employment and has other positive effects on the overall economy and on society, the resources employed in the housing sector displace investment that would otherwise occur in the business sector were it not for the favored tax treatment of housing. The resulting distortion in the allocation of capital likely lowers overall output, because resources are allocated based on tax considerations rather than economic merit. In effect, the United States has chosen as a society to live in larger, debt-financed homes while accepting a lower standard of living in other regards.

The moral of the story is that if more government is the answer, someone has asked a very stupid question.

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My opinion of politicians is so low that it is always a surprise when one of them does something to cause a radical downward revision, but Newt Gingrich has achieved this dubious distinction. His shallow attempt to score political points led him to attack House GOPers who are trying to reform Medicare to protect America from becoming a bankrupt, Greek-style welfare state.

Ryan’s proposal, which was passed by the GOP-controlled House in April, would have people 54 and younger choose from a list of coverage options and have Medicare make “premium-support payments” to the plan they chose. “I don’t think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering,” Gingrich scoffed in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” House Republicans, including Speaker John A. Boehner, have stood behind Ryan’s plan, which was the subject of fierce debate at town-hall meetings nationwide. Other Republican presidential contenders have praised Ryan’s political courage without going so far as to endorse the budget blueprint.

As I’ve posted before, I don’t think there is such a thing as a perfect (or completely flawed) politician. The real issue is whether a candidate is willing to balance personal ambition with a sufficient level of concern with the future of the nation. Newt Gingrich has failed this simple test.

But I also want to take this opportunity to raise a question about a candidate who seems to be on the right track, but has a very worrisome blemish on his record. I’ve already said nice things about Herman Cain, but someone needs to ask him whether he still thinks TARP was a good idea, as he wrote back in 2008.

Wake up people! Owning a part of the major banks in America is not a bad thing. We could make a profit while solving a problem. But the mainstream media and the free market purists want you to believe that this is the end of capitalism as we know it. …These actions by the Treasury, the Federal Reserve Bank and the actions by the Federal Depositors Insurance Corporation (FDIC) are all intended to help solve an unprecedented financial crisis.

I’m not implying that this is a kiss-of-death revelation for Cain. Many people thought we had to recapitalize the banking system, but didn’t realize there was an alternative that didn’t involve bailing out well-connected shareholders, bondholders, and managers.

And just as Gov. Pawlenty has recanted on his support for cap-n-trade legislation, the real issue is whether Cain has the maturity to admit a mistake and explain how he made an error on TARP.

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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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The President garnered some attention for his January 18 column in the Wall Street Journal, in which he said we need to control the regulatory burden.

Let’s start with the insincere part. He praised capitalism.

America’s free market has not only been the source of dazzling ideas and path-breaking products, it has also been the greatest force for prosperity the world has ever known. That vibrant entrepreneurialism is the key to our continued global leadership and the success of our people.

I’m not really sure how to analyze this passage. Let’s just say it is akin to George W. Bush talking about the need for small government and fiscal responsibility.

Obama then talks about the need for balance, saying that regulations sometimes are too onerous, but then he gets to the inaccurate part.

…we have failed to meet our basic responsibility to protect the public interest, leading to disastrous consequences. Such was the case in the run-up to the financial crisis from which we are still recovering. There, a lack of proper oversight and transparency nearly led to the collapse of the financial markets and a full-scale Depression.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at this statement. A part of the government, the Federal Reserve, creates far too much liquidity with an easy-money policy. Other government-created entities, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, then create enormous subsidies for bad housing loans. These combined policies lead to a bubble that bursts, and Obama wants us to believe it was a problem of inadequate regulation?!? For those who are interested, here’s a good article from the American Enterprise Institute explaining how government caused the financial crisis.

Now let’s get to the hypocritical part, where the President issues a new executive order, asserting we need to balance costs and benefits.

As the executive order I am signing makes clear, we are seeking more affordable, less intrusive means to achieve the same ends—giving careful consideration to benefits and costs. This means writing rules with more input from experts, businesses and ordinary citizens. It means using disclosure as a tool to inform consumers of their choices, rather than restricting those choices.

I suppose we should give the President credit for chutzpah. Less than one month ago, his Administration proposes an IRS interest-reporting regulation that, in a best-case scenario, will drive tens of billions of dollars out of the U.S. economy. That regulation does not even pretend there are any offsetting benefits, yet Obama says his Administration will be diligent in applying cost-benefit analysis. This is sort of like a kid murdering his parents and then asking a court for mercy because he’s an orphan.

But that example is just the tip of the iceberg. Diana Furchtgott-Roth has a column for Realclearmarkets, where she dings the President for absurd regulations dealing with everything from gender quotes in the Dodd-Fran bailout bill to offshore drilling regulations that have thrown tens of thousands into unemployment lines.

And David Harsanyi, writing in the Denver Post, nails the White House for several examples of regulatory excess, including the EPA’s power grab, the FCC’s unilateral attempt to regulate the Internet, and the nightmarish rules that will be required for government-run healthcare.

Right now the EPA is drafting carbon rules to force on states, even though a similarly torturous 2,000 pages on a cap-and-trade scheme intending to make power more expensive was rejected. Maybe there’s something in that pile of paper to mine? Right now, the FCC is shoving net neutrality in the pipeline — again, bypassing Congress — so government can regulate the Internet for the first time in history, though the commissioners themselves admit that, as of now, any need for rules are based on the what-ifs of their imaginations. There exists no legislation more burdensome and expensive than the “job-crushing” (not “job-killing,” because, naturally, we can’t stand for that kind of imagery) “Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act,” formerly known as Obamacare and presently being symbolically repealed by House Republicans.

Obama’s insincerity, inaccuracy, and hypocrisy are unfortunate. The burden of regulation is now estimated to be about $1.75 trillion. Counterproductive red tape is hidden form of taxation that impedes the economy’s performance, and that means less prosperity for America.

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The news is going from bad to worse for Ireland. The Irish Independent is reporting that the Swiss Central Bank no longer will accept Irish government bonds as collateral. The story also notes that one of the world’s largest bond firms, PIMCO, is no longer purchasing debt issued by the Irish government.

And this is happening even though (or perhaps because?) Ireland received a big bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (and the IMF’s involvement means American taxpayers are picking up part of the tab).

I’ve already commented on Ireland’s woes, and opined about similar problems afflicting the rest of Europe, but the continuing deterioration of the Emerald Isle deserves further analysis so that American policy makers hopefully grasp the right lessons. Here are five things we should learn from the mess in Ireland.

1. Bailouts Don’t Work – When Ireland’s government rescued depositors by bailing out the nation’s three big banks, they made a big mistake by also bailing out creditors such as bondholders. This dramatically increased the cost of the bank bailout and exacerbated moral hazard since investors are more willing to make inefficient and risky choices if they think governments will cover their losses. And because it required the government to incur a lot of additional debt, it also had the effect of destabilizing the nation’s finances, which then resulted in a second mistake – the bailout of Ireland by the European Union and IMF (a classic case of Mitchell’s Law, which occurs when one bad government policy leads to another bad government policy).

American policy makers already have implemented one of the two mistakes mentioned above. The TARP bailout went way beyond protecting depositors and instead gave unnecessary handouts to wealthy and sophisticated companies, executives, and investors. But something good may happen if we learn from the second mistake. Greedy politicians from states such as California and Illinois would welcome a bailout from Uncle Sam, but this would be just as misguided as the EU/IMF bailout of Ireland. The Obama Administration already provided an indirect short-run bailout as part of the so-called stimulus legislation, and this encouraged states to dig themselves deeper in a fiscal hole. Uncle Sam shouldn’t be subsidizing bad policy at the state level, and the mess in Europe is a powerful argument that this counterproductive approach should be stopped as soon as possible.

By the way, it’s worth noting that politicians and international bureaucracies behave as if government defaults would have catastrophic consequences, but Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute explains that there have been more than 200 sovereign defaults in the past 200 years and we somehow avoided Armageddon.

2. Excessive Government Spending Is a Path to Fiscal Ruin – The bailout of the banks obviously played a big role in causing Ireland’s fiscal collapse, but the government probably could have weathered that storm if politicians in Dublin hadn’t engaged in a 20-year spending spree.

The red line in the chart shows the explosive growth of government spending. Irish politicians got away with this behavior for a long time. Indeed, government spending as a share of GDP (the blue line) actually fell during the 1990s because the private sector was growing even faster than the public sector. This bit of good news (at least relatively speaking) stopped about 10 years ago. Politicians began to increase government spending at roughly the same rate as the private sector was expanding. While this was misguided, tax revenues were booming (in part because of genuine growth and in part because of the bubble) and it seemed like bigger government was a free lunch.

Eventually, however, the house of cards collapsed. Revenues dried up and the banks failed, but because the politicians had spent so much during the good times, there was no reserve during the bad times.

American politicians are repeating these mistakes. Spending has skyrocketed during the Bush-Obama year. We also had our version of a financial system bailout, though fortunately not as large as Ireland’s when measured as a share of economic output, so our crisis is likely to occur when the baby boom generation has retired and the time comes to make good on the empty promises to fund Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

3. Low Corporate Tax Rates Are Good, but They Don’t Guarantee Economic Success if other Policies Are Bad – Ireland used to be a success story. They went from being the “Sick Man of Europe” in the early 1980s to being the “Celtic Tiger” earlier this century in large part because policy makers dramatically reformed fiscal policy. Government spending was capped in the late 1980 and tax rates were reduced during the 1990s. The reform of the corporate income tax was especially dramatic. Irish lawmakers reduced the tax rate from 50 percent all the way down to 12.5 percent.

This policy was enormously successful in attracting new investment, and Ireland’s government actually wound up collecting more corporate tax revenue at the lower rate. This was remarkable since it is only in very rare cases that the Laffer Curve means a tax cut generates more revenue for government (in the vast majority of cases, the Laffer Curve simply means that changes in taxable income will have revenue effects that offset only a portion of the revenue effects caused by the change in tax rates).

Unfortunately, good corporate tax policy does not guarantee good economic performance if the government is making a lot of mistakes in other areas. This is an apt description of what happened to Ireland. The silver lining to this sad story is that Irish politicians have resisted pressure from France and Germany and are keeping the corporate tax rate at 12.5 percent. The lesson for American policy makers, of course, is that low corporate tax rates are a very good idea, but don’t assume they protect the economy from other policy mistakes.

4. Artificially Low Interest Rates Encourage Bubbles – No discussion of Ireland’s economic problems would be complete without looking at the decision to join the common European currency. Adopting the euro had some advantages, such as not having to worry about changing money when traveling to many other European nations. But being part of Europe’s monetary union also meant that Ireland did not have flexible interest rates.

Normally, an economic boom drives up interest rates because the plethora of profitable opportunities leads investors demand more credit. But Ireland’s interest rates, for all intents and purposes, were governed by what was happening elsewhere in Europe, where growth was generally anemic. The resulting artificially low interest rates in Ireland helped cause a bubble, much as artificially low interest rates in America last decade led to a bubble.

But if America already had a bubble, what lesson can we learn from Ireland? The simple answer is that we should learn to avoid making the same mistake over and over again. Easy money is a recipe for inflation and/or bubbles. Simply stated, excess money has to go someplace and the long-run results are never pleasant. Yet Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve have launched QE2, a policy explicitly designed to lower interest rates in hopes of artificially juicing the economy.

5. Housing Subsidies Reduce Prosperity – Last but not least, Ireland’s bubble was worsened in part because politicians created an extensive system of preferences that tilted the playing field in the direction of real estate. The combination of these subsidies and the artificially low interest rates caused widespread malinvestment and Ireland is paying the price today.

Since we just endured a financial crisis caused in large part by a corrupt system of housing subsidies for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, American policy makers should have learned this lesson already. But as Thomas Sowell sagely observes, politicians are still fixated on somehow re-inflating the housing bubble. The lesson they should have learned is that markets should determine value, not politics.

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Ireland is in deep fiscal trouble and the Germans and the French apparently want the politicians in Dublin to increase the nation’s 12.5 percent corporate tax rate as the price for being bailed out. This is almost certainly the cause of considerable smugness and joy in Europe’s high-tax nations, many of which have been very resentful of Ireland for enjoying so much prosperity in recent decades in part because of a low corporate tax burden.

But is there any reason to think Ireland’s competitive corporate tax regime is responsible for the nation’s economic crisis? The answer, not surprisingly, is no. Here’s a chart from one of Ireland’s top economists, looking at taxes and spending for past 27 years. You can see that revenues grew rapidly, especially beginning in the 1990s as the lower tax rates were implemented. The problem is that politicians spent every penny of this revenue windfall.

When the financial crisis hit a couple of years ago, tax revenues suddenly plummeted. Unfortunately, politicians continued to spend like drunken sailors. It’s only in the last year that they finally stepped on the brakes and began to rein in the burden of government spending. But that may be a case of too little, too late.

The second chart provides additional detail. Interestingly, the burden of government spending actually fell as a share of GDP between 1983 and 2000. This is not because government spending was falling, but rather because the private sector was growing even faster than the public sector.

This bit of good news (at least relatively speaking) stopped about 10 years ago. Politicians began to increase government spending at roughly the same rate as the private sector was expanding. While this was misguided, tax revenues were booming (in part because of genuine growth and in part because of the bubble) and it seemed like bigger government was a free lunch.

But big government is never a free lunch. Government spending diverts resources from the productive sector of the economy. This is now painfully apparent since there no longer is a revenue windfall to mask the damage.

There are lots of lessons to learn from Ireland’s fiscal/economic/financial crisis. There was too much government spending. Ireland also had a major housing bubble. And some people say that adopting the euro (the common currency of many European nations) helped create the current mess.

The one thing we can definitely say, though, is that lower tax rates did not cause Ireland’s problems. It’s also safe to say that higher tax rates will delay Ireland’s recovery. French and German politicians may think that’s a good idea, but hopefully Irish lawmakers have a better perspective.

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I commented on the Obama Administration’s TARP dishonesty yesterday, which made me feel better, but it was even more cathartic to vent on national TV about the corruption, dishonesty, and economic damage associated with the Wall Street bailout.

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I’m an economist, so I should probably be most agitated about the economic consequences of TARP, such as moral hazard and capital malinvestment. But when I read stories about how political insiders (both in government and on Wall Street) manipulate the system for personal advantage, I want to go postal.

Yes, TARP was economically misguided. But the bailout also was fundamentally corrupt (as are so many things when government gets too big). And it was a form of corruption that lined the pockets of the ruling class. I don’t like it when lower-income people use the political system to take money from upper-income people, but I get completely nauseated/angry/disgusted when upper-income people use the coercive power of government to steal money from lower-income people.

Now, to add insult to injury, we’re being fed an unsavory gruel of lies and deception as the political class tries to cover up its sleazy behavior. Here’s a story from Bloomberg about the Treasury Department’s refusal to obey the law and comply with a FOIA request. A Bloomberg reporter wanted to know about an insider deal to put taxpayers on the line to guarantee a bunch of Citigroup-held securities, but the government thinks that people don’t have a right to know how their money is being funneled to politically-powerful and well-connected insiders.

The late Bloomberg News reporter Mark Pittman asked the U.S. Treasury in January 2009 to identify $301 billion of securities owned by Citigroup Inc. that the government had agreed to guarantee. He made the request on the grounds that taxpayers ought to know how their money was being used. More than 20 months later, after saying at least five times that a response was imminent, Treasury officials responded with 560 pages of printed-out e-mails — none of which Pittman requested. They were so heavily redacted that most of what’s left are everyday messages such as “Did you just try to call me?” and “Monday will be a busy day!” None of the documents answers Pittman’s request for “records sufficient to show the names of the relevant securities” or the dates and terms of the guarantees.

Here’s another reprehensible example of sleazy behavior. The Treasury Department, for all intents and purposes, lied when it recently claimed that the AIG bailout would cost “only” $5 billion. This has triggered some pushback from Capitol Hill GOPers, as reported by the New York Times, but it is highly unlikely that anyone will suffer any consequences for this deception. To paraphrase Glenn Reynolds, “laws, honesty, and integrity, like taxes, are for the little people.”

The United States Treasury concealed $40 billion in likely taxpayer losses on the bailout of the American International Group earlier this month, when it abandoned its usual method for valuing investments, according to a report by the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. …“The American people have a right for full and complete disclosure about their investment in A.I.G.,” Mr. Barofsky said, “and the U.S. government has an obligation, when they’re describing potential losses, to give complete information.” …“If a private company filed information with the government that was just as misleading and disingenuous as what Treasury has done here, you’d better believe there would be calls for an investigation from the S.E.C. and others,” said Representative Darrell Issa, the senior Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He called the Treasury’s October report on A.I.G. “blatant manipulation.” Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, said he thought “administration officials are trying so hard to put a positive spin on program losses that they played fast and loose with the numbers.” He said it reminded him of “misleading” claims that General Motors had paid back its rescue loans with interest ahead of schedule.

 P.S. Allow me to preempt some emails from people who will argue that TARP was a necessary evil. Even for those who think the financial system had to be recapitalized, there was no need to bail out specific companies. The government could have taken the approach used during the S&L bailout about 20 years ago, which was to shut down the insolvent institutions. Depositors were bailed out, often by using taxpayer money to bribe a solvent institution to take over the failed savings & loan, but management and shareholders were wiped out, thus  preventing at least one form of moral hazard.

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In the “Five Things About Me” section of the blog, I included this blurb:

A left-wing newspaper in the U.K. wrote that I’m “a high priest of light tax, small state libertarianism.” I assume they meant it as an insult, but it’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about me.

I now have something new to add to that list. In their new book, Give Us Liberty, Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe noted that I was one of the few people in Washington who was against TARP from the beginning. I’m proud that I never wavered in my support for small government and free markets, and I’m proud to work at the Cato Institute, where there is never pressure to do the wrong thing merely to appease Republicans. So this passage from their book partially offsets the horror of yesterday’s football game.  

The day after Paulson released his sweeping plan, FreedomWorks quickly connected with other free market groups to assess their willingness to fight. It was a surprisingly small group. But a principled few stepped up, notably Andrew Moylan of the National Taxpayers Union. The Club for Growth and the Competitive Enterprise Institute also weighed in, and Dan Mitchell at Cato and the folks at Reason.com offered much needed policy support. The groups joined forces with a few free market Capitol Hill staffers who were also feeling remarkably isolated in their efforts to stop the massive government bailout.

For those who are not familiar with the debate, the TARP bailout was a failure, both in terms of what it did and what it didn’t do. Regarding the former, TARP gave blank-check authority to the Treasury Department, resulting in an unsavory combination of sordid special-interest handouts and economically-destructive misallocation of capital. The politicians and Wall Street moochers said TARP was necessary to recapitalize the financial system, but that easily could have been accomplished by doing something similar to what happened during the S&L crisis 20 years ago – shutting down insolvent firms and compensating (if necessary) creditors, depositors, and other retail customers. The real tragedy, however, is that politicians failed to fix the policies that caused the crisis – the corrupt system of housing subsidies from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the reckless easy-money policy of the Federal Reserve. The lesson we should learn is that government intervention and subsidies have very high costs.

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Considering they could have sat on their hands and relied on unhappy voters to give them big gains in November, I’m not too unhappy about the House GOP’s “Pledge to America.” Yes, it’s mostly filled with inoffensive motherhood-and-apple-pie language, but at least there’s some rhetoric about reining in excessive government. After eight years of fiscal profligacy under Bush, maybe this is a small sign that Republicans won’t screw up again if they wind up back in power. That being said, I was a bit disappointed that the GOP couldn’t even muster the courage to shut down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two corrupt government-created entities that bear so much responsibility for the housing mess and subsequent financial crisis. The best the GOP could do was to say “Since taking over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage companies that triggered the financial meltdown by giving too many high risk loans to people who couldn’t afford them, taxpayers were billed more than $145 billion to save the two companies. We will reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac by ending their government takeover, shrinking their portfolios, and establishing minimum capital standards.” Is it really asking too much for Republicans to simply say “The federal government has no role in housing and Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development should be eliminated.” Heck, the GOP’s Pledge doesn’t even mention a penny’s worth of budget cuts for HUD. Here’s an excerpt from Peter Wallison’s Bloomberg column, which explains why Fannie and Freddie should be decapitated.

In a year when angry voters are demanding a reduced government role in the economy, it is remarkable that most of the ideas for supplanting Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are just imaginative ways of keeping government in the business of housing finance. …This is pretty astonishing. One would think that something might have been learned from the recent past, when two New Deal ideas for government housing support–the savings and loan industry and the government sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac–failed spectacularly. It cost taxpayers $150 billion to clean up the first and may cost more than $400 billion to resolve the second. …government policy that deliberately degrades loan quality or creates moral hazard will eventually cause devastation in the housing market. …Government involvement in housing finance is an invitation to disaster. As illustrated by the S&Ls and GSEs, no matter how such a system is structured, government support will hide the real risks.

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By choosing not to use the economic downturn as an excuse for more wasteful spending, Germany may have avoided Obama’s big mistake, but that does not mean German conservatives and Angela Merkel are supporters of economic liberty and individual freedom. Not even close. A good (or should I say “bad”) example of Merkel’s statist mindset is her push for a tax on financial transactions. And not just a German tax. She wants a global tax. And not just for the typical political reason of wanting more of other people’s money. Merkel has a megalomaniacal view that “every product, every actor, every financial market participant should be regulated.” Ludwig Erhard must be spinning in his grave.

“We will continue to work for a tax on the financial markets,” Merkel said in a stormy debate in parliament on her government’s 2011 budget. “The finance minister is doing this in several discussions and we are going to try to persuade as many countries as possible. Unfortunately, the world is not always as we would wish … but we are not going to give up,” she added. At a meeting of European Union finance ministers earlier this month, members of the 27-country bloc clashed over the idea of imposing a tax of financial market transactions in Europe. The proposal, driven by France and Germany…, has run into stiff resistance from several countries, notably Sweden and Britain. At the level of the Group of 20 developed and developing nations, there is still more discord, with Canada and emerging market economies leading the battle against it. A G20 summit takes place in South Korea in November. “We are sticking to the principle that every product, every actor, every financial market participant should be regulated so that we have an overview of what is happening on the financial markets,” Merkel said.

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George Melloan’s column in the Wall Street Journal discusses the new Basel capital standards and correctly observes that 22 years of global banking regulations have not generated good results. This is not because requiring reserves is a bad thing, but rather because such policies do nothing to fix the real problem. In the case of the United States, easy money policy by the Fed and a corrupt system of Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac subsidies caused the housing bubble and resulting financial crisis. Yet these problems have not been addressed, either in the Dodd-Frank bailout bill or the new Basel rules. Indeed, Melloan points out that Fannie and Freddie were exempted from the Dood-Frank legislation.

There’s something to be said for holding banks to higher capital standards, even at the cost of more constrained lending and slower economic growth. But the much-bruited idea that Basel rules will make the world freer of financial crises is highly doubtful, given current political circumstances. The 2008 financial meltdown was not primarily the result of lax regulation but of co-option and abuse of the U.S. financial system by the political class in Washington. The federal government’s “affordable housing” endeavors, beginning in the 1990s, allowed and even forced banks to make highly risky mortgage loans. Those loans were folded into mortgage-backed securities (MBS) sold in vast numbers throughout the world, most promiscuously by two government-sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The Federal Reserve contributed a credit bubble that caused house prices to soar, a classic asset inflation. When the bubble began to deflate in 2007, the bad loans in mortgage securities became poisonous. The MBS market seized up, and financial institutions holding them became illiquid and began to crash. The Lehman Brothers collapse was the biggest shock. The only way Basel standards might have helped prevent this would have been if they had been applied to Fannie and Freddie as well as to banks. They weren’t. President Bill Clinton exempted the two giants from Basel capitalization rules because they were the primary instruments of a federal policy aimed at helping more lower-income people become homeowners. This was a laudable goal that ultimately wrecked the housing and banking industries. Washington has learned nothing from this debacle, which is why the next financial crisis is likely to have federal policy origins and may come sooner than we think. Fannie and Freddie—now fully controlled by Uncle Sam and exempt from the Dodd-Frank financial “reform” legislation—are still going strong, guaranteeing and restructuring loans while they continue to rack up huge losses for taxpayers. …The record since the Basel process began 22 years ago doesn’t generate faith in banking regulation either. Basel rules didn’t prevent the collapse of Japanese banking in 1990, they didn’t prevent the 2008 meltdown, and they are not preventing the banking failures that plague the financial system even today.

P.S. The bureaucrats and regulators who put together the Basel capital standards were the ones who decided that mortgage-backed securities were very safe assets and required less capital. That was a common assumption at the time, so the point is not that the Basel folks are particularly incompetent, but rather that regulation is a very poor substitute for market discipline. Letting financial firms go bankrupt instead of bailing them out would be a far better way of encouraging prudence.

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The Free Market Mojo site asked me a number of interesting questions about public policy. I’m not sure all of my answers were interesting, but here are some snippets that capture my curmudgeonly outlook.

I think it’s important to divide the topic into two issues, the policies that cause short-run fluctuations and the policies that impact long-run growth. Generally speaking, I try to avoid guessing games about what is happening today and tomorrow (or even yesterday), and instead focus on the policies that will boost the economy’s underlying productive capacity. …the Fed’s easy-money policy was a mistake. If the central bank had behaved appropriately, we presumably would not have suffered a financial crisis and recession. And if we go back in history, we find the Fed’s fingerprints whenever there is an economic meltdown. …I would not want the government to impose a gold standard. Competitive markets should determine the form of money and/or what backs up that money. Perhaps gold would emerge in such a competitive system, but a gold standard should not be imposed. …I don’t trust politicians. They would pass a bill to impose a VAT while simultaneously phasing out the income tax over a five-year period. But inevitably there would be some sort of “emergency” in year three and the income tax would be “temporarily” extended. When the dust settled, temporary would become permanent and we would be a decrepit European-style welfare state. …There are many great economists, but for my line of work, Milton Friedman has to be at the top of the list. He had an incredible ability to explain the benefits of liberty and the costs of statism in a way that reached average people.

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For those who favor truth in labeling, the housing meltdown and related financial crisis and economic downturn should be brightly stamped with the phrase, “Made in Washington.” Here are two good pieces of evidence. First, this paper from the American Enterprise Institute is one of the best big-picture analyses on the issue. It identifies how “affordable lending” policies are at the heart of the problem. Here’s an excerpt from the abstract.

Government policies forced a systematic industry-wide loosening of underwriting standards in an effort to promote affordable housing. This paper documents how policies over a period of decades were responsible for causing a material increase in homeowner leverage through the use of low or no down payments, increased debt ratios, no loan amortization, low credit scores and other weakened underwriting standards associated with NTMs. These policies were legislated by Congress, promoted by HUD and other regulators responsible for their enforcement, and broadly adopted by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the GSEs) and the much of the rest mortgage finance industry by the early 2000s. Federal policies also promoted the growth of overleveraged loan funding institutions, led by the GSEs, along with highly leveraged private mortgage backed securities and structured finance transactions. HUD’s policy of continually and disproportionately increasing the GSEs’ goals for low- and very-low income borrowers led to further loosening of lending standards causing most industry participants to reach further down the demand curve and originate even more NTMs. As prices rose at a faster pace, an affordability gap developed, leading to further increases in leverage and home prices. Once the price boom slowed, loan defaults on NTMs quickly increased leading to a freeze-up of the private MBS market. A broad collapse of home prices followed.

Then, to show a good example of Mitchell’s Law, which is how bad government policy leads to more government policy, here’s a story about the fiasco surrounding President Obama’s mortgage subsidy program. The government is so bloody incompetent, it can’t even give away money effectively.

Nearly half of the 1.3 million homeowners who enrolled in the Obama administration’s flagship mortgage-relief program have fallen out. The program is intended to help those at risk of foreclosure by lowering their monthly mortgage payments. Friday’s report from the Treasury Department suggests the $75 billion government effort is failing to slow the tide of foreclosures in the United States, economists say. More than 2.3 million homes have been repossessed by lenders since the recession began in December 2007, according to foreclosure listing service RealtyTrac Inc. Economists expect the number of foreclosures to grow well into next year. “The government program as currently structured is petering out. It is taking in fewer homeowners, more are dropping out and fewer people are ending up in permanent modifications,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. …Many borrowers have complained that the government program is a bureaucratic nightmare. They say banks often lose their documents and then claim borrowers did not send back the necessary paperwork. The banking industry said borrowers weren’t sending back their paperwork. They also have accused the Obama administration of initially pressuring them to sign up borrowers without insisting first on proof of their income. When banks later moved to collect the information, many troubled homeowners were disqualified or dropped out. Obama officials dispute that they pressured banks. They have defended the program, saying lenders are making more significant cuts to borrowers’ monthly payments than before the program was launched. And some of the largest mortgage companies in the program have offered alternative programs to those who fell out.

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The Wall Street Journal correctly pulls aside the veil and exposes the dubious gimmick that European politicians used to declare that banks are reasonably health. To put it bluntly, they assumed no government would ever default, which really means that the stress test was a fraud or German taxpayers are now on the chopping block to bail out every other nation.

Two months ago, credit markets in Europe nearly went off the rails over concern about what a sovereign debt default in Greece would do to the Continent’s banks. After last night’s release of the result of a Europe-wide stress test, we’re not much wiser. The EU’s committee of national bank regulators repeatedly says that its stress test includes a “sovereign shock” scenario. But crucially, “a sovereign default was not included in the exercise,” in the dry language of the committee’s summary report. This means the test only looked at government debt held in trading portfolios, while ignoring any government bonds listed as held to maturity. Earlier this month, regulators made it clear that they opposed testing the consequences of a sovereign debt default on European bank balance sheets. The German magazine Der Speigel reported that regulators felt including sovereign default in the tests might imply that the EU’s €750 billion ($960 billion) bailout fund wasn’t guaranteed to work. In other words, bank regulators in Europe think Greece, Spain, Portugal and the rest are too big to fail. Germany and France will always save them in the end, so the consequences of a default don’t even need to be considered.

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The Wall Street Journal opines about the number of new regulations that will be generated by the so-called financial reform legislation that has been approved by Congress. The big winners will by lawyers, the federal bureaucracy, and politicians. The big losers will be shareholders and consumers.
The Dodd-Frank financial reform bill passed by the Senate yesterday promises to generate historic levels of red tape. But apparently the 2,300 pages are so complicated that a debate has broken out over precisely how many new regulatory rule-makings it will require. This week we reported on an analysis by the Davis Polk & Wardwell law firm that at least 243 new federal rule-makings are on the way, not to mention 67 one-time studies and another 22 new periodic reports. The attorneys were careful to note that this was a low-ball estimate, counting only new regulations mandated by the bill. Now comes Tom Quaadman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who doesn’t quarrel with the Davis Polk estimate but has added rule-makings authorized by this legislation to those that are mandated and says that American businesses should expect a whopping 533 new sets of rules. To put this number in perspective, Sarbanes-Oxley, Washington’s last exercise in financial regulatory overreach, demanded only 16 new regulations. Thus he reasons that Dodd-Frank “is over 30 times the size of SOX.” …While it might seem that the regulatory uncertainty created by the bill won’t last much longer than a decade as new rules are implemented, that also could be optimistic. When regulators are granted new authorities without expiration dates on their powers, the rule-making possibilities are infinite. …The most likely result of Dodd-Frank in the near term is a generally higher cost of credit, and a bigger market share for the largest banks that can more easily absorb the new regulatory costs. In the longer term, do not expect it to prevent the next financial mania and panic.

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