In Times of Crisis, Trust Capitalism

By Joseph Calhoun

The US government is executing a coup d’etat of capitalism and I fear that we will pay the price for many years to come. Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke and a host of others tell us the credit market is not working and the only way to get it working again is for the government to intervene. They claim this intervention is urgently needed and if we don’t act, the consequences are dire. Dire, as in New Depression dire. Have these supposed experts on capitalism forgotten how it really works?

Last week Goldman Sachs raised $10 billion in new capital in one day. They sold $5 billion in preferred stock and warrants to Berkshire Hathaway and also completed a secondary offering of common stock that raised another $5 billion. Friday, JP Morgan raised $10 billion in a secondary offering to help pay for the Washington Mutual takeunder. Both of these offerings were oversubscribed, meaning that the companies could have raised more capital if they wanted. There is not a shortage of capital for well run financial companies.

There is, however, a shortage of capital for companies that have acted irresponsibly with investor capital in the recent past. For some reason, our political leaders believe this is a failure of the market, but isn’t this what should be expected from rational investors? Given a choice, why would a rational investor allocate limited capital to the losers rather than the winners? If capital is really as scarce as it seems, isn’t it better for our economy if we make sure that it is allocated wisely?

The biggest bank failure in the history of the United States happened last Thursday night and by Friday morning, it was business as usual. The only difference was the name on the door and the losses suffered by those unfortunate enough to invest in Washington Mutual bonds or stock. The taxpayers didn’t lose anything and depositors didn’t lose anything, only investors. That is how capitalism works in case everyone has forgotten.

The “crisis” we face today is not a creation of the market. Government intervention over many years (but especially the last year) is what brought us to the point where we’ve placed our hopes for economic recovery on the good intentions of a Congress facing re-election in a few weeks. There has been much commentary recently about the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the creation and expansion of the sub-prime mortgage market which many believe to be the cause of this mess. That criticism is certainly warranted, but little attention has been paid to the real culprit – the Federal Reserve. Furthermore, what attention there has been is concentrated on the role of Alan Greenspan rather than Ben Bernanke. While Alan Greenspan deserves his share of the blame, Bernanke’s contribution to this mess should not be minimized or excused.

Bernanke obviously does not trust the market to sort the winners from the losers. When this erupted last year, the Fed lowered interest rates, including the discount rate, which is the rate charged by the Fed to lend directly to banks. There has always been a stigma attached to borrowing directly from the Fed and for good reason. If a bank can’t get other banks to lend it money, that tells the market something about the condition of the bank in question. Last August, Bernanke convinced three large banks to borrow at the discount window in an effort to remove that stigma. When that didn’t work, he concocted a scheme to allow banks to borrow from the Fed in anonymity via a mechanism he called the Term Auction Facility. When Bear Stearns blew up, he added the Term Securities Lending Facility for investment banks. By removing the stigma of borrowing from the Fed and hiding the identity of the borrowers, Bernanke removed important information from the market.

Now we face a situation where banks are not willing to lend to each other and have therefore become dependent on the Fed for daily liquidity. This is a direct result of the Fed’s actions. Banks will not lend to each other because they don’t know which ones are really in trouble. The rise in inter-bank lending rates is a rational market response to a lack of information. Furthermore, why pay those inter-bank rates when the Fed or ECB is offering easier terms?

These opaque lending facilities are just part of the problem created by the Fed and Treasury. The Bear Stearns intervention started the process by raising expectations that the government would step in and broker deals that would normally be left to the private sector. By providing favorable terms to JP Morgan in the deal, private actors came to see an advantage in waiting to see if the Fed would provide similar terms again. The worry at the time was that a Bear Stearns failure would cause a collapse of the system, but after watching Lehman Brothers file bankruptcy one has to wonder if that worry was based on fear or facts. Lehman filed bankruptcy on a Sunday night and the market opened the next day and functioned as it should. Would a Bear bankruptcy have been different? We will never know, but I have my doubts.

Now markets are waiting on pins and needles as the politicians haggle over the details of the latest bailout attempt by the Fed and Treasury. This has introduced another roadblock to the re-capitalization and reorganization of the financial industry. Companies that are in need of capital are waiting to see if the plan will bail them out of their difficulties. If Hank Paulson is willing to pay an above market price for their bad loans, why should they dilute their equity now? Why not wait until they can offload the bad paper on the taxpayer and raise capital at a better price? Why take Tony Soprano terms when Uncle Sam is willing to let the taxpayer take the hit for you?

If this bailout goes ahead in its current form and the Treasury pays a high enough price to recapitalize the troubled banks, what has been accomplished? The plan may be enough to induce the banking sector to start lending again, although frankly, I don’t know why we would want institutions who have shown such poor judgment in the past to stay in that business. This plan short circuits the capitalist model which would allow the stronger, well-run institutions to gain market share and/or expand profit margins. The long-term effect will be to lower the overall return on capital in the financial services industry. The government apparently believes that the key to economic recovery is to allocate limited resources in an inefficient manner. Does that make sense?

Paulson and Bernanke have testified to Congress that the market for the mortgage paper rotting on the balance sheets of bad banks is not working. They have not offered an explanation of why that market is not functioning except to blame the complicated nature of some of the securities. That explanation begs the question of how exactly the Treasury believes it will be any better at deciphering the mortgage market. A more logical explanation is not a lack of willing buyers, but a lack of willing sellers. The Fed has allowed institutions to use collateral of ever falling quality to secure loans from the Fed. If a bank can finance its activities through the Fed and keep the bad loans on the balance sheet, what incentive does it have to sell? Selling will reveal the true condition of the company and will also force other institutions to do the same under mark- to-market accounting. The Fed is the one keeping the market from functioning. The Treasury does not need to enter the market for it to start functioning; the Fed needs to leave the market.

Paulson has said that the cause of the current problems is the housing deflation, but that ignores the elephant in the living room. The housing bubble, which was concentrated in a relatively small number of states, was caused by the reckless actions of the Greenspan Fed. The consequences of that bubble have been exacerbated by the Bernanke Fed. The market is functioning as it should. It is the Fed that is not functioning correctly. There is no reason we had to go through either the bubble or the aftermath. We got into this mess because we tried to avoid the consequences of the Internet bubble. We will only make things worse by trying to avoid the consequences of the housing bubble.

We are not on the verge of a new depression. The housing bubble collapse in California, Florida and a few other states is not enough to bring down the entire banking system. Investors who made mistakes in these markets should be held responsible and those who navigated the Fed-distorted market should be rewarded for their wisdom and prudence. Enacting the Paulson plan will not allow that to happen and our economy will suffer for it in the long run. The Japanese tried to prop up failed banks in the aftermath of the bursting of their twin bubbles and the result was 15 years of stagnation. Why are we emulating a strategy that is a demonstrable failure? A better alternative would be to allow capitalism to work as it should and stop the interventions of the Fed in the money market. Trust capitalism. It works.

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