Thursday, January 29, 2009

Let Jeremy Stein Sort It All Out

Terrific news: Harvard economist Jeremy Stein is joining Obama’s team of savants who are trying to form a plan for dealing with the financial mess. I like this guy a lot. Check out this from the WSJ Real Time Economics site (the bolding is mine):

He advocated aggressive government audits of banks, aimed at separating solvent ones from insolvent ones. Once that was done, insolvent banks would be forced into closure or sale while solvent ones would be pushed to raise more private capital. In addition to dealing with the bad bank problem, putting the plan in place would remove much of the uncertainty in financial markets that the government’s ad hoc approach to banks thus far has helped instill.

Great stuff. The nationalization debate has heated up lately, with some justification as it becomes clear to everyone that many U.S. banks are insolvent. But how do you take over swaths of a banking system gracefully, effectively, without setting off a mass panic? I'm coming to the conclusion that it's a mistake to lead the discussion with the nationalization idea -- it freaks out Republicans too much and also introduces too many thorny "how do we do this and what are the effects?” questions.

A better approach: begin with aggressive government audits of the banks, as Stein proposes. Aggressive means a tough accounting of those distressed assets on their books. In the first round start out with the largest 20, 50, 100 U.S. banks -- however many you can audit in a relatively short time frame, say two to four weeks. (This exercise should be easier right now since the banks have just done their end-of-year audits.)

After round one, you have a very critical commodity that the Paulson-led Treasury never possessed or seemed much interested in: good hard information about who’s fine, who’s in some trouble, and who’s in really deep doo doo. Now you don't have to indiscriminately sling around bailout dollars; you can make calculated decisions on who is strongest and should be propped up. The insolvent ones, if they can't raise capital, should be unwound in an orderly fashion. Or, if they're too big to fail, they get nationalized as a last resort.

Two reasons why this is a good approach: one, it's not a perfect way to eliminate the moral hazard problem, but it's a vast improvement over Paulson's scattering of funds without regard to viability. Think of it as like grading along a curve. The banks that made the worst bets, or the most insolvent, will go bust. That's as it should be. Others who are solvent or who are close to solvency will be rescued.

Two, as Stein astutely points out, this process restores a degree of certainty to financial markets in an area where it matters hugely: which of the players in the financial industry are on solid financial footing. Not resolving this issue arguably contributes the most to the freezing of credit. After a series of hard-nosed audits, banks essentially will become marked as either survivors or losers, with an impartial auditor’s stamp of approval (or disapproval).

Hiring Jeremy Stein was an excellent idea. Now Obama should listen to him. Carefully.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Bush: Blissfully out of Touch Until the Very End

“The actions taken by my administration in response to the financial crisis have laid the groundwork for a return to economic growth and job creation, and they are beginning to show some early results,” President George W. Bush said in a letter to Congress that accompanied the annual Economic Report of the President.

Back in the 1980s cartoonist Garry Trudeau did a series of strips about the inside of Ronald Reagan’s brain. It was a spooky jungle of fused and drooping synapses, a no man's land of muddled thought. Sometimes I wonder what the George Bush brain would look like. A vast and empty desert of feel-good banality?

His administration is forecasting the U.S. economy to snap out of its slump in the second half of 2009. This prediction is most likely self-serving or cynical or both. Obviously, to preserve what he can of his tattered legacy, Bush would like us to believe we are poised for recovery. Then he can claim that his presidency took the body blow from the financial crisis, but he made the painful decisions that put this country on the right track.

Of course that’s -- not to mince words -- crap. Paulson and his minions have done little more than transfuse blood into an army of zombie banks. The zombies will be back for more blood after Bush is gone. The U.S. taxpayer will be asked to bare a vein once more.

What if Bush had spoken the truth in his quote? It might sound like this:

“The actions by my administration in response to the financial crisis were taken only after much foot dragging and were half-hearted; I realize what we did looks like corporate welfare of the worst kind, but that is only because we ideologically oppose government intervention in free markets even when those markets have hugely failed, in part because of a climate of regulatory indifference that I encouraged,” President George W. Bush said in a letter to Congress that accompanied the annual Economic Report of the President. “We decided a couple of months ago to tread water and not do anything radical to solve this crisis, preferring to leave an intractable mess for the incoming Democratic president so that when economic growth and job creation don't materialize, Obama and his advisers can be blamed."

Friday, January 16, 2009

Wake up Washington!!!

This is a short entry as I sit and stew in frustration. Bank of America just got $20 billion more in federal funds and guarantees of support on $118 billion of assets. These bailouts will go on and on and on and on until Washington understands a very basic fact about this financial crisis:

The major banks in the U.S. are insolvent.

One more time: insolvent.

That's spelled I-N-S-O-L-V-E-N-T.

Nationalize them. Or let them perish. Just stop, please stop, dumping money into these bottomless pits.