By James Kwak
Larry Summers is well on his way to rehabilitating his public image as a brilliant intellectual, moving on from his checkered record as president of Harvard University and as President Obama’s chief economic adviser during the first years of the administration. Unfortunately, he can’t resist taking on his critics—and he can’t do it without letting his debating instincts take over.
I was reading his review of House of Debt by Mian and Sufi. Everything seemed reasonable until I got to this passage justifying the steps taken to bail out the financial system:
“The government got back substantially more money than it invested. All of the senior executives who created these big messes were out of their jobs within a year. And stockholders lost 90 per cent or more of their investments in all the institutions that required special treatment by the government.”
I have no doubt that every word in this passage is true in some meaninglessly narrow sense or other. But on the whole it is simply false.
By James Kwak
The Treasury Department today announced that it has sold off the rest of its stake in A.I.G. Treasury will focus on the claim that taxpayers made a profit on the deal. As I’ve written before, the story is a bit more complicated.
But that’s a sideshow. The point of nationalizing A.I.G. (what else do you call it when the government buys 80% of a company?) wasn’t to make money; it was supposedly to save the global economy. In any case, things have worked out pretty well: the global economy is intact, though still not healthy, and A.I.G. is a private company again.
Which brings up what, to me, is the bigger question: Why were we so afraid of nationalizing Citigroup and Bank of America four years ago? And isn’t A.I.G. looking like a better company today than those two?
Posted in Commentary
Tagged aig, bailout
“What cannot be accepted are financial rescue operations that benefit the unworthy and cause losses to other important groups – like taxpayers and wage earners. And that, unfortunately, is the perception held by many nowadays, particularly in the United States.”
That’s Brad DeLong (regular blog here) in Project Syndicate (hat tip Mark Thoma).
But Brad, is it just a perception, or is it real? I think DeLong is saying it’s real, but I’m not certain.
Thomas Adams, a lawyer and former bond insurer executive, wrote a guest post for naked capitalism on the question of why AIG was bailed out and the monoline bond insurers were not (wow, is it really almost two years since the monoline insurer crisis?). He estimates that the monolines together had roughly the same amount of exposure to CDOs that AIG did; in addition, since the monolines also insured trillions of dollars of municipal debt, there were potential spillover effects. (AIG, by contrast, insured tens of trillions of non-financial stuff — people’s lives, houses, cars, commercial liability, etc. — but that was in separately capitalized subsidiaries.)
The difference between the monolines and AIG, Adams posits, was Goldman Sachs.
Tyler Cowen quotes from Robert Pozen’s yet-to-be-released book:
“In my view, the adverse repercussions of Lehman’ failure could have been substantially reduced if the federal regulators had made clear that they would protect all holders of Lehman’s commercial paper with a maturity of less than 60 days and guaranteed the completion of all trades with Lehman for that period.”
Back when people cared about these things, I wrote a couple of posts on the issue of selective protection of creditors.
Last Wednesday I wrote a highly critical post about the agreement between Bank of America(BAC) and the government (Treasury, the Fed, and the FDIC) to terminate BAC’s asset guarantee agreement in exchange for a payment of $425 million. I’ve learned some more about this and I think I can reconstruct the government’s perspective on this issue, with the help of someone knowledgeable about the transaction.
I’m trying to figure out if I should be infuriated about the agreement allowing Bank of America to walk away from the asset guarantees it got as part of its January bailout in exchange for a payment of $425 million. I can piece together part of the story from The New York Times, Bloomberg, and NPR, but the complete story is a bit hazy.
The initial deal was that Treasury, the FDIC, and the Fed would guarantee losses on a $118 billion portfolio of assets; B of A would absorb the first $10 billion and 10% of any further losses, so the government’s maximum exposure would be about $97 billion. Part of that guarantee was a non-recourse loan commitment from the Fed, basically meaning that the Fed would loan money to B of A, take the assets as collateral, and agree to keep the assets in lieu of being paid back at B of A’s option. In exchange, the government would get:
(a) An annual fee of 20 basis points on the Fed’s loan commitment, even when undrawn (if B of A drew down the loan, which it didn’t, it would pay a real interest rate). The loan commitment could be interpreted to be only $97 billion, so this comes to $194 million per year.
(b) $4 billion of preferred stock with an 8% dividend. That’s a dividend of $320 million per year; B of A can buy back the preferred stock by paying $4 billion.
(c) Warrants on $400 million of B of A stock. B of A was at $7.18 the day the bailout was announced and yesterday it closed at $17.61, so if Treasury had gotten an exercise price of $7.18, those warrants would be worth about $580 million now.
I had a post criticizing John Carney on the topic of bankslaughter. However, I must say I agree with him when it comes to Goldman Sachs. Even more surprising, I largely agree with the Wall Street Journal editorial that Carney links to.
The issue of the day is obviously CIT. It’s hard to sort out the real news from clever PR/planted stories in this situation, but it looks like the FDIC is coming out strongly against being involved in a rescue package. Given Sheila Bair’s successful political positioning and strong popular appeal, it’s hard to see how – once dug in – the FDIC can be moved.
The lobbying frenzy has concentrated on CIT’s role in financing small and medium-sized business; “the recession will be deeper if CIT fails” is the refrain. This is a weak argument – it would be straightforward to refinance this part of CIT’s business without bailing out CIT’s creditors, and definitely without keeping top CIT executives in place; this is the essence of “negotiated conservatorship,” which is a proven model in the US.
More plausible is the concern that given Treasury’s generous handouts to date for financial firms, if they are now tough on CIT’s creditors, this will send a new signal about how they may treat other firms – and maybe raise fears of Hank Paulson-like flipflopping. Citigroup’s CDS spread is still at worrying levels, and Treasury/National Economic Council watches this closely – for both organizational and personal reasons. Continue reading
Posted in Commentary
Tagged bailout, CIT
Tyler Cowen, co-author of a prominent independent economics blog, has an article in The New York Times explaining “Why Creditors Should Suffer, Too.”
What the banking system needs is creditors who monitor risk and cut their exposure when that risk is too high. Unlike regulators, creditors and counterparties know the details of a deal and have their own money on the line.
But in both the bailouts and in the new proposals [for financial regulation], the government is effectively neutralizing creditors as a force for financial safety.
I couldn’t agree more (except for the bit about the regulatory proposals, and that’s just because I haven’t read them closely). We need creditors who will pull their money or demand tougher terms from financial institutions that are doing things that are either too risky or just plain stupid; that’s theoretically a more efficient and cheaper enforcement mechanism than regulatory bodies.
This post was written, at my request, by Carson Gross, one of our regular readers and a multi-talented person I have worked with in the past. (We met one night when I needed help debugging a classpath error I was getting on my computer.) I don’t necessarily agree with what he says, but I think he has something valuable to say. Everything below is by Carson.
James asked me to elaborate on a comment in which I worried about the public’s reaction to the real or perceived wealth transfers occurring during this financial crisis – in particular, how that reaction would manifest itself culturally.
“Wealth transfers” is a charged term, and a lot of smart people have spent a lot of time patiently explaining that, in fact, most of the bailout thus far involves loans and that, under some models (which, apparently, don’t include housing prices regressing to roughly 3x incomes, where they have been for most of history) we, the taxpayers, may actually end up making money on this whole thing. I think that’s fanciful, but I’m not going to debate that here. Rather, I want to focus on the bailout’s cultural impact.
I assert, without proof, that the proverbial man on the street sees the words “bailout” blaring on his TV and computer screen day in and day out, and doesn’t care to look too deeply into the details. Who can blame him? He has enough of his own problems to deal with without attempting to decipher deliberately impenetrable financial jargon. Even if the government is getting reasonable compensation for the capital injections in some cases, the man on the street just sees more of his tax dollars going into banks to pay out people who make orders of magnitude more money than he’ll ever see. That’s his reality.
If I had infinite time, I would respond to all reader questions and suggestions. Unfortunately, I can’t. But I’m hoping to occasionally post some in-depth responses to some of the tougher questions we get.
Chris Uregian, one of our readers, sent us three questions by email. In summary, he thought that we were overlooking some of the problems with nationalization and the reasons why Treasury might be moving more slowly than we would like. I originally answered him in email but we later decided this would be good to post to everyone, and Chris gave us his permission. I am going to copy his questions here and add a response after each one.
According to The New York Times and the The Wall Street Journal, the Treasury Department is set to announce its plan for troubled assets early next week. It will include three components. The details aren’t clear since these are anticipatory news stories, but it will be something like this (combining bits of information from the two stories):
- The FDIC will create a new entity to buy troubled loans, with the government contributing up to 80% of the capital and the remainder coming from the private sector. The Fed or the FDIC would then provide non-recourse loans* for up to 85% of the total funding (NYT), or guarantees against falling asset values (WSJ), which more or less amount to the same thing.
- Treasury will create multiple new investment funds to buy troubled securities, with Treasury contributing 50% of the capital and the rest coming from the private sector. It’s not clear from the news stories, but I think it’s highly likely that these funds will also benefit from either non-recourse loans or asset guarantees.
- The Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) is a program under which the Fed was already planning to buy up to $1 trillion of newly-issued, asset-backed securities** (backed by car loans, credit card receivables, mortgages, etc.). The idea was to stimulate new lending in these categories. This program will be expanded to allow the Fed to buy “legacy” assets – those issued prior to the crisis. This enables the Fed to buy toxic assets off of bank balance sheets.
Simon and I wrote on op-ed in the New York Times today, trying to debunk the idea that, as we put it, “A.I.G.’s traders are the people that we must depend on to save the United States economy.” The AIG bonus fiasco, as I’ve written earlier, has been particularly useful in raising the political cost of the administration’s current bailout strategy. But, as I said then, “$165 million, of course, is less than one-tenth of one percent of the total amount of bailout money given to AIG in one form or another.” And as far as the cost to the taxpayer is concerned, the big bill is for bailing out AIG’s creditors. In his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today, Lucian Bebchuk wants to know why.
Now, the government has not explicitly guaranteed AIG’s liabilities. But the main reason for bailing out AIG in the first place was the fear that an uncontrolled failure would have ripple effects that would take down many other financial institutions who were dependent in some way on AIG; most commonly, they had bought insurance, in the form of credit default swaps, from AIG and were counting on being paid. And a major usage of bailout money has been to make whole AIG’s counterparties holding those credit default swaps, primarily investment banks trading on their own account or on behalf of their hedge fund customers.
$165 million, of course, is less than one-tenth of one percent of the total amount of bailout money given to AIG in one form or another. Yet it may turn out to be the $165 million that broke the camel’s back.
The AIG bonus saga neatly encapsulates many of the problems that we have identified with the financial system and with the bailout to date.