JPM, BOA, and Citi: The new big three

Manhattan, 2008 = Detroit, 1979?

How many of readers believe these behemoths, our new saviors, could survive the present crisis without unprecedented Fed liquidity support and the pending Treasury solvency infusion? What would have come of Citi and its famous SIVs had it been without a too big to fail option?

Now, after a series of deals, several of which involved the government stripping liabilities of and privatizing assets, these commercial bank holding companies are the new kings of Wall Street, the white knights of our financial crisis. What lessons have been learned? Is it better to be canny and prudent in business, or to have Robert Rubin on your board and Timothy Geithner in your rolodex?

Detroit’s big three had a near death experience, and learned that by working the government, they could survive and sometimes even prosper. Working the government meant especially throwing their very bigness around the political system to get subtle little perqs, twists and loopholes in, say, well-intentioned environmental regulations, to keep them going and give them an edge over far superior competitors elsewhere in the world. GM has got to be the most insolvent going public concern in the history of the world, with -$57B in shareholder equity, but the beat goes on, with $25B in new government loans to the big three currently in the pipeline (and $25B more demanded). Imagine an alternative history in which these firms had painfully reorganized in 1980, their plants and assets taken over by lean new competitors with the fear of death in ‘em, desperate to learn from and best their rivals everywhere.

Barry Ritholtz is exactly right.

We now have a new big three, each intimately connected to the government monetary and regulatory establishment, and each profoundly too big to fail. They won’t abuse the that position, say, to strangle or absorb innovative competitors, would they? Cherish the thought. Thank goodness for the Borg. Who else could have eaten WaMu-Bear-CW-Merill? J.P. Morgan / Washington Mutual / Chase Manhattan/ Chemical Bank / Bear Stearns / Bank One / Manny Hanny, you’re my hero!

To those of us who do believe that, despite this decade’s toxic experiments, good financial innovation is not only possible, but desperately needed, this looks like the beginning of a new dark age. All the wrong lessons are being learned, as we muddle through an acute crisis by ratifying past idiocies, reinforcing ill-gotten inequalities, and consolidating where we ought to be cutting up.

All is not lost though! There is a scrappy new upstart to really shake up the Wall Street establishment! What was its name again? Oh, right. Goldman Sachs.

What was wrong with the AIG model?

I’m feeling unhelpful, because I’ve complained bitterly about the Paulson Plan and been cool towards the Dodd Plan, but my own suggestion was an obvious nonstarter. We mustn’t offend the delicate sensibilities of creditors, or God forbid give them a haircut. So, really, what would I suggest?

I wonder, what was wrong with the AIG / GSE model? The government has already published a pretty exhaustive list that includes the systemically important and potentially vulnerable financials along with many other firms — the “no short” list. Suppose Congress passed a law providing for fast-track reorganizations modeled on AIG. Firms on the “no short” list would be required to consult with the Treasury prior to any bankruptcy filing, and listed firms would be presumptively eligible for an AIG-style bailout. During an insolvency, the government would take warrants on 79.9% of firm stock, in exchange for a loan or preferred equity infusion sufficient to cover obligations to creditors during an orderly wind-down or reorganization. Existing management would be replaced, and government auditors would examine firm accounts to ensure that there were no “fraudulent transfers” precipitating the bail-out. Any such transfers discovered between the listing of the firm and the reorganization would be criminalized, and prosecuted vigorously. Listed firms would have a fiduciary obligation to the government as well as shareholders, such that “gambling for redemption” near insolvency would also place firm managers in criminal jeopardy.

Temporary routinization of AIG-style bailouts would put skittish creditors at ease. Although Treasury would retain the right to opt out and permit a traditional bankruptcy, the default course of action would make creditors whole. Equityholders and management of listed firms would have a strong incentive not to take the government up on the bail-out if they have any prudent means of avoiding it, since they would lose nearly everything. Taxpayers would own the firms they rescue, and would enjoy the upside of successful reorganizations or divestitures.

Like all the bailouts, this scheme rewards the moral hazard of creditors, and I hate that. There is the danger that it would not be temporary, and that promised regulation to restrain leverage would never materialize, leaving only a subsidy to future blackmailers. Still, I think it’s a lot better than silently and opaquely recapitalizing firms without replacing management or forcing at least shareholders to take a hit.

AIG-style bailouts would stigmatize firms that take advantage of them, as any form of bankruptcy does, but many firms do successfully reorganize from bankruptcy, and the stigma would be well deserved. The process would be transparent.

That many firms would not survive their brush with insolvency in anything like their original forms is an positive. I strongly agree with Barry Ritholtz, quoted in a piece by David Leonhardt:

If Chrysler had collapsed, [Ritholtz] argues, vulture investors might have swooped in and reconstituted the company as a smaller automaker less tied to the failed strategies of Detroit’s Big Three and their unions. “If Chrysler goes belly up,” he says, “it also might have forced some deep introspection at Ford and G.M. and might have changed their attitude toward fuel efficiency and manufacturing quality.”

If we do end up with a gentle, behind-closed-door bailout of financials, I’m afraid that in twenty years, we may view lower Manhattan the same way we see Detroit today. What Wall Street needs is what it has delivered to so many other industries, a dose of Schumpterian creative destruction, to make room so that better things may rise up from the ashes.

p.s. I do hope to rise to Dani Rodrik’s challenge and be concrete about what “better things” might look like, but, alas, my bitter obsession with the looming bail-out takes priority.

p.p.s. Since the government has stormed the commanding heights anyway, does anybody else think it’d be a good idea for some bureaucrat to declare a ban on dividend payments for all firms on the “no short” list? This would have the effect of helping troubled firms preserve cash, while softening the hit individual firms would take if they announce dividends cuts. Firms on the list would have no choice, and only a small minority of “no short” firms are in crisis, so there should be no stigma.

Paulson’s vacuum cleaner?

Commenter “geee” asks a very good question:

[W]ould banks and other financial institutions be allowed to act as conduits to hedge funds selling these securities?

Given that Ben Bernanke has conceded that it is the government’s intention to purchases assets at a “hold-to-maturity” price rather than at a price near market bids, banks favored by Paulson could earn a nice living serving as a market-maker to any entity in the world holding bad paper. Bank buys “toxic” asset from hedge fund, individual, foreign government, whomever, for something above the market bid and then resells to Treasury for the “hold-to-maturity” price, earning a nice spread. All those “blockages” in the financial system might start flowing real fast, into as well as out of our poor sclerotic banks.

This adds to concerns expressed by others that banks would acquire bad mortgages and structure new assets eligible for “hold-to-maturity” sale. (The plans do have language specifying “originated on or before”, but it is ambiguous whether that refers to the mortgages or the securities that wrap them, and there is a big loophole, see below).

A related concern is that the Treasury would purchase assets that are simply inappropriate. Both the Paulson and Dodd plans now permit the purchase “any other financial instrument, as [the Treasury Secretary] determines necessary to promote financial market stability.” The term “financial instrument” covers a lot of ground. In particular, I am uncomfortable with the prospect that the Treasury might take over third parties’ contingent liabilities, as the Fed did when it acquired a book of derivatives from Bear Stearns. (The Fed is at least somewhat shielded from liability by its holding company, Maiden Lane LLC. As far as I know, the Treasury would not be.)

With all the world nervous about counterparty risk, having the US government become a “risk-free counterparty” would undoubtedly soothe nerves, but it could put tax-payers on the hook for indeterminate payouts in a bad scenario. Suppose a hedge fund or non-US insurer that has written a lot of CDS protection goes down, and the dreaded counterparty cascade does occur? I don’t think the Treasury should be in the business of trying to insure the 60+ trillion dollar CDS market. (Yes, that’s notional, but blown counterparties mean questionable netting, so liabilities in a bad scenario could become a significant fraction of notional even on a hedged book.) Nothing in either of the major proposals forbids the Treasury from going down that road, and there are all kinds of reasons, some public-spirited and some corrupt, why it might. There needs to be hard and fast language forbidding positions in financial instruments on which losses are not limited to the upfront cost of purchase.

I don’t mean these to be very constructive suggestions. I still don’t like either plan, though I’d much prefer Dodd to Paulson. But in any plan, there have to be controls on what sort of positions can be taken, including when the asset was last restructured, when ownership was most recently transferred, and that the Treasury’s liability must be strictly limited.

While I’m on this, I want offer a shout out to Calculated Risk for continuing to push on transparency. I cannot believe that the government may trade nearly a trillion dollars of assets on my behalf, and I may never learn exactly what it did. I would never invest in a “rocket science” hedge fund whose manager refused to disclose what he was up to. It looks like I may end up paying taxes to one. There is a lot about this plan that really has me angry, but the shrouded-in-shadows aspect more than anything else has me wondering whether this is still America. A Congressional oversight committee is not enough. Investors with 700 billion dollars under management at the very least deserve the frequent statements that any retail brokerage would issue, enumerating and detailing the performance of all assets transacted.

Eichengreen’s May Day Conjecture

This bit from Barry Eichengreen (ht Mark Thoma) is getting a lot of attention. (See, for example, Dani Rodrik.) Describing the “roots” of the current financial mess, he writes

In the United States, there were two key decisions. The first, in the 1970’s, deregulated commissions paid to stockbrokers… In response, investment banks branched into new businesses like originating and distributing complex derivative securities. They borrowed money and put it to work to sustain their profitability. This gave rise to the first causes of the crisis: the originate-and-distribute model of securitization and the extensive use of leverage.

I want to push back on this a bit. I find it hard to believe that on Wall Street, there were these lucrative side businesses just waiting to be exploited, but investment bankers would have been content to ignore them if they had retained their thick commissions on stock trades. As a historical matter, I’m sure Eichengreen is right that May Day was a spur. But it’s a huge stretch to say that derivatives and originate-to-distribute wouldn’t have been discovered, grown, and grown massively, if only there hadn’t been a competitive squeeze on stockbroker profits.

Eichengreen’s story, taken naively, might lead to the suggestion that we give financial intermediaries cushy sinecures, because, if we don’t, we will have forced the poor dears to get creative and deploy financial weapons of mass destruction that destroy the world!

Financiers will destroy the world however much money you give them (it is never enough), if they have a profitable scheme for doing so and if they are not held back by regulation.

Financiers may also improve the world, in large and important ways, when they find profitable schemes for doing so. We want the financial community to innovate, we just don’t want them to innovate crappily. That means that, yes, we want regulators to have some veto power over their innovations. But a bad response to this crisis would be to suggest that today’s big names be given monopolistic cash cows so they can make lots of money running a museum of Wall Street, circa 1970.

Today’s big names deserve to be ripped apart. They should not be granted plush monopolies. Tomorrow’s big names deserve competition just as much as the next business. More so, actually. Finance should be rife with creative destruction to keep that market discipline vibe going… the “masters of the universe” must always be kept meek and terrified.

Finally, not all “financial innovation” is created alike. Collateralized, cleared, exchange-traded derivatives were a marvelous innovation. Letting poorly collateralized, opaque, nonstandard, eclectically-offset swaps grow into a large-scale financial instrument was idiotic, and was recognizably idiotic (which is why ISDA has had to work so hard and diligently to patch all the idiocies as they showed through the cracks). We desperately need good innovation, tools for intermediation that increase investor discrimination and decrease aggregate credit and counterparty risk. Sure, that’s precisely the opposite of what this decade’s signal innovations were all about. But developing a poison and developing the antidote are both innovation.


The following expands on ideas from a previous post, but is similar in spirit to a wonderful essay by Luigi Zingales (ht Tyler Cowen, Arnold Kling). If you have not read that, please do. I think it is the most important document to have arisen from this debate this far.

Rather than a bail-out, Congress should pass an “ARISE act”. ARISE would stand for Automatic Reorganization of Insolvent Systemically-important Enterprises. It could be very simple.

The Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Chairman of the Federal Reserve and subject to judicial review, would declare certain firms systemically important according to criteria specified by the act. Those firms would be subject to a streamlined form of bankruptcy rather than ordinary Chapter 11 reorganization or Chapter 7 liquidation. The Treasury would compile a list of all systemically important firms, not just those considered to be imperiled, so inclusion would not signal any sort of distress. Should a systematically important firm find itself unable to meet its obligations, it would be subject to a very simple reorganization procedure: common and preferred equityholders would be wiped out (but would be given deep out-of-the-money warrants on stock of the restructured firm), a new class of $1 par value common equity would be established, which would replace existing debt claims dollar for dollar, until the resulting firm would be no more than 4x leveraged and can be certified as conservatively solvent and liquid by independent auditors. Junior debt would be swapped for equity before senior debt, and secured debt would become unsecured. All creditors would have the option of exchanging their debt for equity in the new firm. Further, reorganized firms would have the right to pay off unsecured contingent liabilities (including, for example, liabilities under derivative contracts) in stock at par value rather than in cash.

An intended “unanticipated consequence” of this proposal is that it would make the debt of firms that are potentially “systemically important” much more equity-like, long before any hint of financial distress or reorganization (and even before an explicit listing by the Treasury). That would raise the cost of capital for such firms, serving as a kind of a tax on scale and criticality. Leveraged firms that are “too big or interconnected to fail” create negative externalities for markets, taxpayers, and the public at large. Under the ARISE act, lenders would absorb some costs that the general public would otherwise bear, and would charge appropriately for the insurance. Firms that prefer inexpensive debt financing to the strategic options associated with scale can spin-off independently controlled entities as they grow.

Those who claim this would be a radical abrogation of contract should note that it would only be a change in the bankruptcy code, basically a new form of reorganization. Individuals have been subject to many retrospectively applicable changes in bankruptcy law over the years, and property rights have survived. This change would affect a very small fraction of firms (although a much larger fraction of debt, since it would predominantly affect very large firms).

See also: Mark Thoma, Willem Buiter


Okay. Let’s leave no room for ambiguity here. The Treasury’s draft plan for saving the world is breathtakingly awful. It would give the Secretary of the Treasury entirely unchecked discretion over up to 700B dollars. Even that “limit” has a loophole big enough that you could drive a truck through it, so the Secretary could in effect spend up to 1.8T dollars, right up to the newly raised Federal debt ceiling, without further Congressional action. This act would be such a wholesale delegation of the power of the purse that I wonder whether it is even constitutional. Of course, the act explicitly puts the Secretary’s actions beyond any judicial review, so perhaps questions of legality or constitutionality are merely academic. (Paul Campos shares these concerns.)

As Paul Krugman has pointed out, for the plan to help insolvent institutions, the Treasury would have to overpay for these assets. Yves Smith unearths an account that Secretary Paulson has acknowledged this fact in private, although he won’t cop to it on the Sunday talk shows. It is almost old-fashioned to raise questions about whether or not the former Wall Street banker will offer sweetheart deals to his industry (an industry that has harmed the American economy more deeply than most people realize). Just as big lies boldly asserted can trump plausible untruths nervously defended, overt corruption on a massive scale (but “in the public interest”) might leave a lot of naysayers dumbstruck. It becomes the way we do business. Of course, none of Dean Baker’s progressive conditions, none of Brad DeLong’s dealbreakers, not even my plea for a little transparency are incorporated into the proposal.

The oldest technique for the usurpation of power by the executive from the legislative is the manufacture of a state of emergency. That is not to say the present financial crisis is not actually an emergency. But the how the crisis is understood by legislators and the range of options by which it might be addressed have been set by Messrs Paulson and Bernanke. They have presented a single option, one more radical than seemed reasonable even at the height of the depression. (ht Brad DeLong)

It is worth noting that Paulson and Bernanke have thus far proven themselves to be capable technocrats. (Although, as Dean Baker points out, they’ve been awful prognosticators.) There’s a lot to disagree with in how the dynamic duo have handled the torrent of crises that began last August. But they have acted aggressively and creatively, and in their ad hoc interventions so far, they’ve gone to some lengths to create upside for taxpayers and to squeeze miscreants at least a bit. Until reading the text of the Treasury’s proposal and stewing on it overnight, I was inclined not to fight too hard. I saw things as I’m sure legislators see things: Something must be done, a megabailout is disagreeable and imperfect, but it’s something that we can do quickly, and it’s what our experts, whom we trust, recommend. Let’s fiddle at the margins to get it done as best we can.

But the proposed text flipped a switch in my brain. This is not, as Senator Schumer put it, “a good foundation of a plan that can stabilize markets quickly”. It is a raw arrogation of power. My trust, my willingness to extend the benefit of the doubt, has evaporated.

This is overreach. This is bad.

See also… Glenn Greenwald, John Hempton, Sebastian Mallaby, David Merkel, Robert Reich, among many, many others, I am sure.

For a contrary view, check out the always thoughtful knzn. I disagree pretty strongly, but he’s always worth reading.

FD: I am short broad stock indices, which seem to like the prospect of a bailout, so opposing the plan might seem self-interested. But I am longer precious metals and I’m short long-maturity Treasuries. My guess (and of course it is only a guess) is that those positions would do well under the plan.

Update History:
  • 21-Sept-2008, 9:15 p.m. EDT: Removed some ungrammatical excess words, an “on” and a “be do”, doo-be-doo-wah.

Truth & Reconciliation

I am not, on balance, a fan of the proposed megabailout of the financial system. But if it is going to happen, we should require at the very least this — that taxpayers learn immediately what assets they have purchased, from whom, and for how much.

We should tolerate no more of what the Fed did when it bailed out Bear Stearns’ creditors. Maiden Lane LLC sits opaque on the Fed’s balance sheet, hiding an unknowable book of derivatives and a portfolio of assets valued at about $29B, coincidentally almost exactly what the Fed kicked in to purchase them. If we are going to spend roughly a trillion dollars on assets that self-styled masters of the universe failed to value, we ought at least have the opportunity to take a crack at pricing them ourselves, especially once we’ve bought them. It will be essential to form opinions about whether the assets Secretary Paulson will purchase from his former colleagues are fairly priced. The possibility of chummy dealing, the near impossibility of avoiding it, is obvious.

Further, the word confidence keeps coming up, we must restore confidence in the American financial system. It is not enough that we hand over our money, we must hand over our trust as well. Surely, then, if this is a new era of trust, there should be no problem with requiring sellers to disclose at precisely what value the assets for sale had been booked on their financial statements, with criminal penalties for misstatement. We should be able to evaluate, in the light of day, how forthright financial institutions have been in representing their true condition to potential investors and the public-at-large. We may find that some have played things relatively straight, while others survived by sleight-of-hand and exaggeration. The former group will have earned our confidence. The latter will have earned something else.

This is not “a modest proposal”, presented in irony. If we are going to spend hundreds of billions of dollars, absolute transparency strikes me as a minimal prudential requirement. They say sunshine is the best disinfectant. I’m afraid there is a lot of rot in our financial system. It’s time to open up the windows wide.

Update History:
  • 20-Sept-2008, 5:30 p.m. EDT: Changed “to require” to “with requiring”.
  • 20-Sept-2008, 5:30 p.m. EDT: Changed “hundreds of trillions” to “hundreds of billions”. Many thanks to commenter Alan Brown!

Congestion pricing for security trades?

So the whole “banning shorts” thing was wearily predictable. The very politically-connected “good” investment banks had a little scare this week. Call it panic selling, call it a bear raid, whatever. Suddenly, it’s illegal to short financials. Go figure.

People like me are appalled. If it’s illegal to short in a “panic”, we ask, why isn’t it illegal to go long during obvious asset price bubbles? If you can tell a panic from a correction, then surely you can tell an asset bubble from a genuine boom, right Mr. Greenspan? Most people were perfectly aware of the housing and tech bubbles in real time. Only economists and idealists get confused.

Whatever. As I said, the whole dialog is tired, obvious, predictable.

But… Much as I’m an unapologetic short, I’m perfectly willing to concede that there’s such thing as irrational momentum selling, just as there is irrational momentum buying. Momentum buying is far more insidious and destructive in the long term, but both are bad. Banning short sales (or, in mirror image, restricting asset purchases to short covering) might help prevent momentum trades, but it’s a lousy way to address the problem. Decapitation is a perfectly effective cure for migraines, but that doesn’t make it good medicine.

Dean Baker frequently suggests a “Tobin tax” on securities trades, which, as reforms go, is not a terrible idea. What if we did put a small transaction tax on taking financial positions? Reduced liquidity means an increased commitment by investors to the underlying economics of their paper. That’s a good thing.

But what if we designed this tax so that, rather than being calculated as a constant fraction of transaction value, it was a function of both value and trading volume, so that it would be more expensive to trade when everyone else is also trading? Maybe it’d cost 0.02% of notional value to trade when daily transaction volume has been within 1 standard deviation of the trailing year’s mean, but the cost would increase as steeply rising function of any abnormal volume?

Such a tax would have lots of nice properties: First, it would be symmetrical, neutral between buyers and sellers. It would not harm transactors bringing new information into the market, since transaction volume would be normal while the information remains closely held. But it would bite transactors who react to widely known news or who pile on to price momentum. That is, “congestion taxing” wouldn’t much damage the information aggregation/price discovery of markets, but would tax the zero-to-negative sum rush into or out of positions once the information work is already done. “Me too” purchases would be expensive, and those that occur would be informative, because they would reflect conviction rather than copycatting. Low-conviction information cascades would be discouraged by a high cost of entry, rather than prevented outright by administrative fiat.

Is this a good idea? It’s Friday night, been a phukked up week, and I’m drinking right now (Kentucky Bourbon Ale, ya gotta try it), so maybe I’m slurring my thoughts. Just thought I’d toss this out into the world, and see where it lands.

Update: Jesse Eisinger has just published a nice column on the Tobin Tax in Portfolio.

Update History:
  • 22-Sept-2008, 9:45 p.m. EDT: Added link to Jesse Eisinger’s column.

To whom and for what?

I am sorry to go all AWOL lately. I’ll try to post something substantative over the weekend. My temporal balance sheet looks a great deal like Lehman’s financials. Plus, despite the generous antidotes provided by Yves Smith, the events of the past few weeks have me twitchy and disoriented, reading obsessively but barely capable of drooling. I think I speak for a lot of us who’ve been on the pessimistic side of the financial blogosphere these last few years in saying I wish we had been wrong. (I wish the mighty who are now falling had paid us some mind, too.)

Today’s big news is the hint of a bail-out to end all bail-outs. I often have mixed feelings about Robert Reich’s commentary, but I commend to you his piece today.

There is no question that we are going to spend a lot of public money to address the current crisis. We have already put a very extraordinary amount at risk. The question we should be asking is not whether or how much, but to whom and for what. The financial crisis we are facing is a symptom of a much larger economic and social crisis. Wall Street is not the source of the pain. On the contrary, the financial sector has been put this decade primarily in the service of hiding, literally of papering over, unsustainable trends in the current account, income distribution, human and physical capital deterioration, and the sectoral composition of the American economy. The conventional wisdom is that this is a financial crisis, and that so far “Main Street” has been largely insulated from the catastrophe. That is rubbish. The cancer is on Main Street, and the tumor has been growing there for years. Wall Street provided drugs to hide the pain and keep us going, palliative but not curative. What is happening now is those drugs are wearing off. The American economy is fundamentally unsound, and has been for some time. We would have noticed sooner, were it not for financial methamphetamine conjured by mad scientists in lower Manhattan from a whirlwind of foreign central bank money.

I think we’ll only get one shot to set things right by throwing a ton of money at the problem, so we’d better think carefully before we throw it at symptoms rather than causes. Trying to figure this out in a week before Congress goes off to reelect itself strikes me as ambitious. Broadly, my view is that if we are going to legislate, Congress should empower regulators to declare systemically important firms insolvent, write off existing common and preferred, fire incumbent management and unilaterally convert debt to equity as far up the capital structure as they need to go until the firms are unambiguously well-capitalized, with little or no public money involved. Going forward, investors should understand that firms that are too big to fail are too big to be debt-financed, and government enforcement of debt claims against such firms will be limited. If economies of scale are real, equityholders should be glad to reap them. Otherwise markets function better anyway when populated by small actors who compete rather than by behemoths who dominate. The government should not subsidize the many negative externalities of scale. Members of the Pigou Club might suggest that bigness should be taxed and diversity subsidized.

As far as the money is concerned, throw it at infrastructure. Increase worker bargaining power by offering Federally funded retraining sabbaticals for any worker over thirty who decides they want to retool. I’d rather see a new WPA than a new RTC. If it is true that during a debt deflation, the government can spend freely without fear of inflation, let’s spend in a way that balances the economy, not in a manner that tries to ratify the imbalances that brought us here in the first place.

There’s no such thing as a choice-free bailout. The government’s largesse will go to some and not to others, and we have to decide. Don’t believe self-styled technocrats who claim that science or the market tells them who deserves the tax- (or inflation-) payers’ dollar. In a bail-out, there are winners and losers, and we get to pick. I think we should focus on a simple goal: Restructuring the economy so that the vast majority of Americans can afford a middle-class lifestyle with very little leverage on household or government balance sheets. That may be a radical suggestion in 2008, but our grandparents would have considered it only common sense.

Update History:
  • 19-Sept-2008, 8:30 a.m. EDT: Minor edits, added a missing “is”, replaced required with involved re public money.

Inequality and the Credit Crisis

It’s a clich&eacute, of course, that the 2000s are the new Gilded Age, that inequality in America is at levels not seen since the original Gilded Age, which you may recall was ended by a terrible depression.

During this decade’s tiresome debates about inequality, the don’t-worry-be-happy side of the argument frequently, and correctly, noted that income inequality statistics overstate the lived experience of inequality, since the poor spent more than they earn and the rich spent less.

Of course, the poor spend more than they earn primarily by taking on debt. In the halcyon days of 2006, that was no problem. Credit flowed like honey, and what could always be refinanced need never be repaid. It’s a wonder we didn’t do away with the whole “money” thing entirely. If you can spend all the way down to negative infinity, it hardly matters whether your starting wealth is one dollar or a billion dollars. Why keep track?

But, alas, people did keep track. They also stopped lending to people who might not be able to repay, people who, you know, spend more than they earn. Which means, even putting aside the terrible hardship of bankruptcy, or struggling to pay down old loans, all of a sudden the lived experience of inequality must come very much to resemble those unpleasant income inequality statistics. Are we cool with that?

In a way, the credit crisis comes out of a tension between the broad-middle-class America of our collective imagination and the economically polarized nation we have in fact come to be. We borrowed to finance an illusory Mayberry. The crisis won’t be over until this tension is resolved. Either we modify the facts of our economic relations, or we come to terms with a new America more comfortable with distinct and enduring social classes.

Tanta and Calculated Risk have popularized the notion that “We are all subprime now.” But that simply isn’t true. The vast majority may be subprime now, but not all of us. To use an old expression, as the easy money falls away, we are being left to “find our own level”. For many, it may be quite a bit lower than we had imagined.

I’m sure this is a bit polemic, but I don’t think it is much overstated. Credit was the means by which we reconciled the social ideals of America with an economic reality that increasingly resembles a “banana republic“. We are making a choice, in how we respond to this crisis, and so far I’d say we are making the wrong choice. We are bailing out creditors and going all personal-responsibility on debtors. We are coddling large institutions of prestige and power, despite their having made allocative errors that would put a Soviet 5-year plan to shame. We applaud the fact that “wage pressures are contained”, protecting the macroeconomy of the wealthy from the microeconomy of the middle class.

The credit crisis will end, and life in America will go on. What we have to decide now is, when the floodwaters clear, what kind of country will be revealed. Peering down through the murk, I don’t like what I am seeing.

Addendum: Tyler Cowen was prophetic on this point. He wrote in January, 2007 on income vs. consumption inequality:

People may be borrowing and accumulating large debts. Note that in this case, however, the comeuppance, however bad it may be, has yet to come. It could instead be argued that “inequality will (someday, when the debts come due) be a serious problem.”

Welcome to someday, Labor Day, 2008.

FD: I’m still very stagflation-oriented in my personal portfolio (precious metals, short long bonds and stocks), so the wage-price spiral demagoguing might be interpreted as self-interested. That said, no apologies. It astonishes me that even very liberal economists take comfort in the evisceration of wage-earners’ bargaining power. Yes, it means that Ben doesn’t need to hike, regardless of what commodities do. But what kind of economy are we building when we take the price of past mistakes out of future wage-earners’ pay packets, while protecting the accumulated wealth of those who profited by erring?