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Archive for the ‘Moral Hazard’ Category

I’ve shared lots of analysis (both serious and satirical) about the mess in Greece and I feel obliged to comment on the latest agreement for another bailout.

But how many times can I write that the Greek government spends too much money and has a punitive tax system (and a crazy regulatory regime, a bloated bureaucracy, etc)?

So let’s try a different approach and tell a story about the new bailout by using some images.

Here’s an amusing perspective on what actually happened this weekend.

I explained a few days ago that the bailouts have simultaneously enabled the delay of much-needed spending reforms while also burdening Greece with an impossible pile of debt.

But the Greek bailouts, like the TARP bailout in the United States, were beneficial to powerful insiders.

Here’s a look at how banks in various European nations have been able to reduce their exposure to Greek debt.

Sure, the banks almost surely still lost money, but they also transferred a lot of the losses to taxpayers.

To get a sense of the magnitude of handouts, here’s a chart from a Washington Post story.

And now, assuming the deal gets finalized, that pile of foolish and unsustainable debt will be even bigger.

One of the main components of the new agreement is that Greece supposedly will raise revenue by selling $50 billion of state-owned assets.

Don’t believe that number. But not because there aren’t plenty of assets to sell, but rather because the track record on privatization proceeds suggests that there is a giant gap between what Greece promises and what Greece delivers.

To understand why assets aren’t being sold, just keep in mind that most of the assets are under the control of the government in order to provide unearned benefits to different interest groups.

If you’re an overpaid unionized worker at a government-owned port, for instance, the last thing you want is to have that port sold to a private investor who presumably would want to link pay to productivity.

Here’s the best bit of humor I’ve seen about the negotiations this past weekend. It purports to show a list of demands from Germany to Greece.

While this image is funny, it’s also wrong.

Germany isn’t imposing anything on Greece. The Germans are simply stating that Greek politicians need to make some changes if they want more handouts.

Moreover, it’s quite likely that Germany will wind up being a big loser when the dust settles. Here’s some of what Gideon Rachman wrote for the U.K.-based Financial Times.

If anybody has capitulated, it is Germany. The German government has just agreed, in principle, to another multibillion-euro bailout of Greece — the third so far. In return, it has received promises of economic reform from a Greek government that makes it clear that it profoundly disagrees with everything that it has just agreed to. The Syriza government will clearly do all it can to thwart the deal it has just signed. If that is a German victory, I would hate to see a defeat.

So true.

I fear this deal will simply saddle Greece with a bigger pile of debt and set the stage for a more costly default in the future.

The title of this column is about pictures. But let’s close with some good and bad analysis about the Greek mess.

Writing for Real Clear Markets, Louis Woodhill has some of the best insight, starting with the fact that the bailout does two things.

First, this new bailout is largely just a mechanism to prevent default on past bailouts. Sort of like making a new loan to your deadbeat brother-in-law to cover what he owes you on previous loans.

…the €53.5 billion in new loans…would just be recycled to Greece’s creditors (the IMF, the EU, and the ECB) to pay the interest and principal on existing debts.

Second, it prevents the full meltdown of Greek banks.

The key point is that a bailout agreement would restore European Central Bank (ECB) “Emergency Liquidity Assistance” (ELA) to the Greek banking system. This would allow Greeks that still have deposits in Greek banks (€136.5 billion as of the end of May) to get their money out of those banks.

That’s good news if you’re a Greek depositor, but that’s about it.

In other words, those two “achievements” don’t solve the real problem of Greece trying to consume more than it produces.

Indeed, Woodhill correctly identifies a big reason to be very pessimist about the outcome of this latest agreement. Simply stated, Greek politicians (aided and abetted by the Troika) are pursuing the wrong kind of austerity.

…what is killing Greece is a lack of economic growth, and the meat of Tsipras’ bailout proposal consists of growth-killing tax hikes. The media and the economics profession have been framing the alternatives for Greece in terms of a choice between “austerity” and “stimulus.” Unfortunately for Greece, austerity has come to mean tax increases, and stimulus has come to mean using “other people’s money” (mainly that of German taxpayers) to support Greek welfare state outlays. So, if “other people” aren’t willing to fund more Greek government spending, then the only option the “experts” can imagine is to raise taxes on an economy that is already being crushed by excessive taxation.

Let’s close with the most ridiculous bit of analysis about the Greek situation. It’s from Joe Stiglitz,

Joseph Stiglitz accused Germany on Sunday of displaying a “lack of solidarity” with debt-laden Greece that has badly undermined the vision of Europe. …”Asking even more from Greece would be unconscionable. If the ECB allows Greek banks to open up and they renegotiate whatever agreement, then wounds can heal. But if they succeed in using this as a trick to get Greece out, I think the damage is going to be very very deep.”

Needless to say, I’m not sure why it’s “solidarity” for one nation to mooch in perpetuity from another nation. I suspect Stiglitz is mostly motivated by an ideological desire to redistribute from the richer Germans to the poorer Greeks,

But I’m more interested in why he isn’t showing “solidarity” to me. I’m sure both his income and his wealth are greater than mine. So if equality of outcomes is desirable, why doesn’t he put his money where his mouth is by sending me a big check?

Needless to say, I won’t be holding my breath waiting for the money. Like most leftists, Stiglitz likes to atone for his feelings of guilt by redistributing other people’s money.

And I also won’t be holding my breath waiting for a good outcome in Greece. As I wrote five-plus years ago, Greece needs the tough-love approach of no bailouts, which would mean a default but also an immediate requirement for a balanced budget.

Last but not least, I’m going to confess a possible mistake. I always thought that Margaret Thatcher was right when she warned that the problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money. But this latest bailout of Greece shows that maybe politicians from other nations are foolish enough to provide an endless supply of other people’s money.

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When debating and discussing the 2008 financial crisis, there are two big questions. And the answers to these questions are important because the wrong “narrative” could lead to decades of bad policy (much as a mistaken narrative about the Great Depression enabled bad policy in subsequent decades).

  1. What caused the crisis to occur?
  2. What should policy makers have done?

In a new video for Prager University, Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute succinctly and effectively provides very valuable information to help answer these questions. Particularly if you want to understand how the government promoted bad behavior by banks and created the conditions for a crisis.

Here are some further thoughts on the issues raised in the video.

Deregulation didn’t cause the financial crisis – Nicole explained that banks got in trouble because of poor incentives created by previous bailouts, not because of supposed deregulation. As she mentioned, their “risk models” were distorted by assumptions that some financial institutions were “too big to fail.”

But that’s only part of the story. It’s also important to recognize that easy-money policies last decade created too much liquidity and that corrupt subsidies and preferences for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac steered much of that excess liquidity into the housing sector. These policies helped to create the bubble, and many financial institutions became insolvent when that bubble burst.

TARP wasn’t necessary to avert a meltdown – Because the video focused on how the “too big to fail” policy created bad incentives, there wasn’t much attention to the topic of what should have happened once big institutions became insolvent. Defenders of TARP argued that the bailout was necessary to “unfreeze” financial markets and prevent an economic meltdown.

But here’s the key thing to understand. The purpose of TARP was to bail out big financial institutions, which also meant protecting big investors who bought bonds from those institutions. And while TARP did mitigate the panic, it also rewarded bad choices by those big players. As I’ve explained before, using the “FDIC-resolution” approach also would have averted the panic. In short, instead of bailing out shareholders and bondholders, it would have been better to bail out depositors and wind down the insolvent institutions.

Bailouts encourage very bad behavior – There’s a saying that capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell, which is simply a clever way of pointing out that you need both profit and loss in order for people in the economy to have the right set of incentives. Bailouts, however, screw up this incentive structure by allowing private profits while simultaneously socializing the losses. This creates what’s known as moral hazard.

I’ve often used a simple analogy when speaking about government-created moral hazard. How would you respond if I asked you to “invest” by giving me some money for a gambling trip to Las Vegas, but I explained that I would keep the money from all winning bets, while financing all losing bets from your funds? Assuming your IQ is at least room temperature, you would say no. But our federal government, when dealing with the financial sector, has said yes.

Good policy yields short-run pain but long-run gain – In my humble opinion, Nicole’s most valuable insight is when she explained the long-run negative consequences of the bailouts of Continental Illinois in 1984 and Long-Term Capital Management in 1998. There was less short-run pain (i.e., financial instability) because of these bailouts, but the avoidance of short-run pain meant much more long-run pain (i.e., the 2008 crisis).

Indeed, this “short termism” is a pervasive problem in government. Politicians often argue that a good policy is unfeasible because it would cause dislocation to interest groups that have become addicted to subsidies. In some cases, they’re right about short-run costs. A flat tax, for instance, might cause temporary dislocation for some sectors such as housing and employer-provide health insurance. But the long-run gains would be far greater – assuming politicians can be convinced to look past the next election cycle.

Let’s close by re-emphasizing a point I made at the beginning. Narratives matter.

For decades, the left got away with the absurd statement that the Great Depression “proved” that capitalism was unstable and destructive. Fortunately, research in recent decades has helped more and more people realize that this is an upside-down interpretation. Instead, bad government policy caused the depression and then additional bad policy during the New Deal made the depression longer and deeper.

Now we have something similar. Leftists very much want people to think that the financial crisis was a case of capitalism run amok. They’ve had some success with this false narrative. But the good news is that proponents of good policy immediately began explaining the destructive role of bad government policy. And if Nicole’s video is any indication, that effort to prevent a false narrative is continuing.

P.S. The Dodd-Frank bill was a response to the financial crisis, but it almost certainly made matters worse. Here’s what Nicole wrote about that legislation.

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There’s a big fiscal battle happening in Europe. The relatively new Greek government is demanding continued handouts from the rest of Europe, but it wants to renege on at least some of the country’s prior commitments to improve economic performance by reducing the preposterous burden of spending, regulation, and intervention.

That seems like a rather strange negotiating position. Sort of like a bank robber holding a gun to his own head and saying he’ll shoot himself if the teller doesn’t hand over money.

At first glance, it seems the Greeks are bluffing. Or being suicidally self-destructive.

And maybe they are posturing and/or being deluded, but there are two reasons why the Greeks are not totally insane.

1. The rest of Europe does not want a Greek default.

There’s a famous saying, attributed to J. Paul Getty, that applies to the Greek fiscal fight. Simply stated, there are lots of people and institutions that own Greek government bonds and they are afraid that their investments will lose value if Greece decides to fully or partially renege on its debts (which is an implicit part of Greece’s negotiating position).

So while Greece would suffer if it defaulted, there would be collateral damage for the rest of Europe. In other words, the hypothetical bank robber has a grenade rather than a gun. And while the robber won’t fare well if he pulls the pin, lots of other people may get injured by shrapnel.

And to make matters more interesting, previous bailouts of Greece have created a rather novel situation in that taxpayers are now the indirect owners of a lot of Greek government debt. As you can see from the pie chart, European taxpayers have the most exposure, but American taxpayers also are on the hook because the IMF has participated in the bailouts.

The situation is Greece is akin to a bankruptcy negotiation. The folks holding Greek government debt are trying to figure out the best strategy for minimizing their losses, much as the creditors of a faltering business will calculate the best way of extracting their funds. If they press too hard, the business may go bust and they get very little (analogous to a Greek default). But if they are too gentle, they miss out on a chance of getting a greater share of the money they’re owed.

2. Centralization is the secular religion of the European elite and they want Greece in the euro.

The bureaucrats at the European Commission and the leaders of many European nations are emotionally and ideologically invested in the notion of “ever closer union” for Europe. Their ultimate goal is for the European Union to be a single nation, like the United States. In this analogy, the euro currency is akin to the American dollar.

There’s a general perception that a default would force the Greek government to pull out of the euro and re-create its own currency. And for the European elite who are committed to “ever closer union,” this would be perceived as a major setback. As such, they are willing to bend over backwards to accommodate Greece’s new government.

Given the somewhat blurry battle lines between Greece and its creditors, what’s the best outcome for advocates of limited government and individual liberty?

That’s a frustrating question to answer, particularly since the right approach would have been to reject any bailouts back when the crisis first started.

Without access to other people’s money, the Greek government would have been forced to rein in the nation’s bloated public sector. To be sure, the Greek government may also have defaulted, but that would have taught investors a valuable lesson about lending money to profligate governments.

And it would have been better if Greece defaulted five years ago, back when its debt was much smaller than it is today.

But there’s no point in crying about spilt milk. We can’t erase the mistakes of the past, so what’s the best approach today?

Actually, the right answer hasn’t changed.

And just as there are two reasons why the Greek government is being at least somewhat clever in playing hardball, there are two reasons why the rest of the world should tell them no more bailouts.

1. Don’t throw good money after bad.

To follow up on the wisdom of J. Paul Getty, let’s now share a statement commonly attributed to either Will Rogers or Warren Buffett. I don’t know which one (if either) deserves credit, but there’s a lot of wisdom in the advice to stop digging if you find yourself in a hole. And Greece, like many other nations, has spent its way into a deep fiscal hole.

There is a solution for the Greek mess. Politicians need to cut spending over a sustained period of time while also liberalizing the economy to create growth. And, to be fair, some of that has been happening over the past five years. But the pace has been too slow, particularly for pro-growth reforms.

But this also explains why bailouts are so misguided. Politicians generally don’t do the right thing until and unless they’ve exhausted all other options. So if the Greek government thinks it has additional access to money from other nations, that will give the politicians an excuse to postpone and/or weaken necessary reforms.

2. Saying “No” to Greece will send a powerful message to other failing European welfare states.

Now let’s get to the real issue. What happens to Greece will have a big impact on the behavior of other European governments that also are drifting toward bankruptcy.

Here’s a chart showing the European nations with debt burdens in excess of 100 percent of economic output based on OECD data. Because of bad demographics and poor decisions by their politicians, every one of these nations is likely to endure a Greek-style fiscal crisis in the near future.

And keep in mind that these figures understate the magnitude of the problem. If you include unfunded liabilities, the debt levels are far higher.

So the obvious concern is how do you convince the politicians and voters in these nations that they better reform to avoid future fiscal chaos? How do you help them understand, as Mark Steyn sagely observed way back in 2010, that “The 20th-century Bismarckian welfare state has run out of people to stick it to.

Well, if you give additional bailouts to Greece, you send precisely the wrong message to the Italians, French, etc. In effect, you’re telling them that there’s a new group of taxpayers from other nations who will pick up the tab.

That means more debt, bigger government, and a deeper crisis when the house of cards collapses.

P.S. Five years ago, I created a somewhat-tongue-in-cheek 10-step prediction for the Greek crisis and stated at the time that we were at Step 5. Well, it appears my satire is slowly becoming reality. We’re now at Step 7.

P.P.S. Four years ago, I put together a bunch of predictions about Greece. You can judge for yourself, but I think I was quite accurate.

P.P.P.S. A big problem in Greece is the erosion of social capital, as personified by Olga the Moocher. At some point, as I bluntly warned in an interview, the Greeks need to learn there’s no Santa Claus.

P.P.P.P.S. The regulatory burden in Greece is a nightmare, but some examples of red tape are almost beyond belief.

P.P.P.P.P.S. The fiscal burden in Greece is a nightmare, but some examples pf wasteful spending are almost beyond belief.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. Since we once again have examined a very depressing topic, let’s continue with our tradition of ending with a bit of humor. Click here and here for some very funny (or sad) cartoons about Obama and Greece. And here’s another cartoon about Greece that’s worth sharing. If you like funny videos, click here and here. Last but not least, here’s some very un-PC humor about Greece and the rest of Europe.

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

But it occasionally happens.

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

The Senate overwhelmingly voted against a VAT.

The Senate unanimously rejected a Greek bailout.

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

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

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

Here are some blurbs from a report in Politico.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The same will happen with the IMF.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s the bottom line?

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

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

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

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

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

Endorsing government cartels to boost tax and regulatory burdens.

Trying to undermine flat tax systems in Albania and Latvia.

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

Pushing for higher tax burdens in Greece.

Seeking the same destructive policy in Cyprus.

Advocating for more centralization and bureaucratic rule in Europe.

Urging higher taxes in El Salvador.

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

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

Reflexively endorsing every possible tax increase.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what should be done?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I call it legal corruption.

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