'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Giveaway (Part 1) 

The financial institutions receiving funds from the bailout aren't shy about expressing their unwillingness to use these funds to generate new loans to reinvigorate a moribund global economy:

Since mid-2007, when the credit crisis erupted, the country’s nine largest banks have written down the value of their troubled assets by a combined $323 billion. With a recession looming, the pain is unlikely to end there. The problems that began with home mortgages, analysts say, are migrating to auto, credit card and commercial real estate loans.

The deepening red ink underscores a crucial question about the government’s plan: Will lenders deploy their new-found capital quickly, as the Treasury hopes, and unlock the flow of credit through the economy? Or will they hoard the money to protect themselves?

John A. Thain, the chief executive of Merrill Lynch, said on Thursday that banks were unlikely to act swiftly. Executives at other banks privately expressed a similar view.

“We will have the opportunity to redeploy that,” Mr. Thain said of the new capital on a telephone call with analysts. “But at least for the next quarter, it’s just going to be a cushion."

Granted, the banks are in a deep hole. For every dollar the banks earned during the industry’s most prosperous years, they have now wiped out $1.06.

Even with the capital from the government, analysts say, the banking industry still needs to raise around $275 billion in light of the looming losses.

But Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. is urging them to use their new capital soon. On Monday, Mr. Paulson unveiled plans to provide $125 billion to nine banks on terms that were more favorable than they would have received in the marketplace. The government, however, has offered no written requirements about how or when the banks must use the money.

“There is no express statutory requirement that says you must make this amount of loans,” said John C. Dugan, the comptroller of the currency. “But the economics work so that it is in their interest to do so.”

Mr. Dugan added that he would not examine how the banks used the money, but he said their actions would “be open to the court of public opinion.”

In other words, the exhortations of government officials and elected officials are merely cosmetic, a charade designed to conceal one of the great thefts in world financial history. No doubt when the funds are gone, we will be treated to something similar to Captain Renault's cynically shouted justification to shut down Rick Blaine's club in Casablanca, paraphrased to conform to the circumstances: I'm shocked, shocked that the banks pocketed the money.

The willingness of bank managers to speak candidly about their true intentions reveals a confidence based upon an unassailable control of the US political system. It has been left to fiscally conservative budget hawks to summarize what has transpired:

“It is the government’s responsibility to set the terms and conditions on this money,” said David M. Walker, the former federal comptroller general and now president of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. “This is the people’s money. They’re giving it out with no rules.”

Stiglitz has again exposed the corruption of the enterprise:

Britain showed at least that it still believed in some sort of system of accountability: heads of banks resigned. Nothing like this in the US. Britain understood that it made no sense to pour money into banks and have them pour out money to shareholders. The US only restricted the banks from increasing their dividends. The Treasury has sought to create a picture for the public of toughness, yet behind the scenes it is busy reassuring the banks not to worry, that it's all part of a show to keep voters and Congress placated. What is clear is that we will not have voting shares. Wall Street will have our money, but we will not have a full say in what should be done with it. A glance at the banks' recent track record of managing risk gives taxpayers every reason to be concerned.

For all the show of toughness, the details suggest the US taxpayer got a raw deal. There is no comparison with the terms that Warren Buffett secured when he provided capital to Goldman Sachs. Buffett got a warrant - the right to buy in the future at a price that was even below the depressed price at the time. Paulson got for the US a warrant to buy in the future - at whatever the prevailing price at the time. The whole point of the warrant is so we participate in some of the upside, as the economy recovers from the crisis, and as the financial system starts to work.

The Paulson plan responded to Congress's demand to have something like a warrant, but as a matter of form, not substance. Buffett got warrants equal to 100% of the value of what he put in. America's taxpayers got just 15%. Moreover, as George Soros has pointed out, in a few years time, when the economy is recovered, the banks shouldn't need to turn to the government for capital. The government should have issued convertible shares that gave the right to the government to automatically share in the gain in share price.

Whether we were cheated or not, the banks now have our money.

Unfortunately, Stiglitz is just another one of many Captain Renaults. Despite condemning the bailout before passage, he, like many other liberals, such as Paul Krugman and the Democratic leadership of Congress, supported it while saying that we should urge the next President and Congress to reform it, a position that he reiterates in this article. Perhaps, Stiglitz really believes this is possible, but, in the unlikely event any action is actually taken, the recipients of the funds will have already insulated themselves against it. In a political system greased by crony capitalists, one can be certain the corrupt will invariably prevail.

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