Sunday, September 28, 2008

Perils of Paulson

I bet that most Americans know that Henry Paulson is the Secretary of the Treasury. I also bet that they had no clue who he was two weeks ago. I also guess that most Americans have no idea what the Treasury's role is in our system of government, but I'm pretty sure that they know that Paulson is the man behind the $700 billion government bailout. This is one heck of an expensive cram course in civics for Mr. Average Taxpayer. Even Stanford wouldn't have the cajones to charge this much.

Something like 90% of the population consider Paulson's plan to be a bailout of Wall Street. But, as discussed in the previous post, the cause of the crisis that is gripping the financial system is not just Wall Street's doing. There's plenty of blame to go around. It's now Paulson's job (along with all the political leaders) to sell the plan that has emerged this weekend as a bailout of the nation's economy, not just a bailout for the fat cats on Wall Street. This will not be easy. It's far simpler to scapegoat the unpopular rich guys. Both Obama and McCain did just that in their first debate two days ago.

Paulson's plan was two and one half pages long when he presented it to the President and Congress. After a week of work, the Washington politicos have renamed it the ‘‘Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008’’. It has grown just a bit (by Washington standards) to over 100 pages of legalese gibberish. And it doesn't even cover the details of how the government will determine the price of the toxic assets it will be buying from the private sector.

Congress is set to vote on this bill this week. It appears that both political parties have come to understand the risk of inaction and are likely to pass the proposed legislation on to the White House. I wonder if they'll have the usual signing ceremony. Will Bush sign it using a bunch of pens which he will then hand to the smiling politicians who will be in the signing photo, or will it be done in the dead of night, with no one wanting any part of the whole mess? It should be fun to see which one happens.

As a free market guy, I'm pretty dismayed that the government is doing this. Sure, I like French food, but I don't sure don't like French economics. However, when I see Bush and both political parties agreeing on something smack in the middle of an election campaign, it must be darn necessary. So you can reluctantly count me in. Although it's not like anyone asked you or me.


Anonymous said...

Back to the drawing board. Want to speculate on the new number of pages the report will contain? I agree with you, this is the the proverbial rock and a hard place. Leaves little
choice that will be advantageous to the general population. NMI

Howard said...

My guess is that a modified version of the plan will get passed later in the week. Today's drop in the stock market will look mild if it doesn't pass by Friday.

Craig said...

I agree with this article from Time:
Let Risk-Taking Financial Institutions Fail

By Ari J. Officer and Lawrence H. Officer Monday, Sep. 29, 2008

Do not be fooled. The $700 billion (ultimately $1 trillion or more) bailout is not predominantly for mortgages and homeowners. Instead, the bailout is for mortgage-backed securities. In fact, some versions of these instruments are imaginary derivatives. These claims overlap on the same types of mortgages. Many financial institutions wrote claims over the same mortgages, and these are the majority of claims that have "gone bad."

At this point, such claims have no bearing on the mortgage or housing crisis; they have bearing only on the holders of these securities themselves. These are ridiculously risky claims with little value for society. It is as if many financial institutions sold "earthquake insurance" on the same house: when the quake hits, all these claims become close to worthless — but the claims are simply bets disconnected from reality.

Follow the money. Average Joes and Janes are not the holders of the other side of complicated, over-the-counter derivatives contracts. Rather, hedge funds are the main holders. The bailout will involve a transfer of wealth — from the American people to financial institutions engaging in reckless speculation — that will be the greatest in history.

Rescuing financial institutions is not the best solution. Yes, banks are needed to provide capital to businesses. But it is not necessary to spend $1 trillion to maintain liquidity. If the government is to intervene, it should pick and choose which claims to purchase; claims that are directly tied to mortgages would be a good start.

Let financial institutions fail, merge or be bought out. The faltering institutions will see their shares devalued and will be likely to be taken over by stronger institutions — as has already started happening. This consolidation of the financial sector is both efficient and inevitable; government action can only delay the adjustment.

The government should not intervene. It should leave overleveraged financial institutions to default on their derivatives obligations and, if necessary, file for bankruptcy. Much of the crisis has arisen from miscalculating the risks involved in a large book of positions in these derivatives. It is only logical that these institutions pay for their poor management.

Rather than bailing out Wall Street, we propose that the government should buy up the actual mortgages in question and do nothing else. The government should not touch any derivatives; that is, claims that do not directly tie into the actual mortgages. If money becomes too tight, then the Fed can certainly increase its loans to financial institutions.

Let the poorly managed, overly risk-taking financial institutions fail! Always remember that Wall Street and the real economy are not the same thing.

— Ari J. Officer has completed his master of science degree in financial mathematics at Stanford University. Lawrence H. Officer is a professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Howard said...

I agree that the government should not be buying derivatives like credit default swaps. But I think that the government should buy mortgage-backed securities, including those in which various mortgage cash streams are packaged together.

These are the securities that currently have no realistic market prices. The lack of pricing information is what's causing the credit markets to seize up. Without the pricing information, no one knows what the assets on an organization's balance sheet are worth. Without this information, trust that the counter-party in a transaction is solvent is missing. Thus, no transactions take place.