I've been unimpressed with this oft-quoted bit from Phillip Swagel's insider account of the Paulson Treasury.
Legal constraints were omnipresent throughout the crisis, since Treasury and other government agencies such as the Federal Reserve must operate within existing legal authorities. Some steps that are attractive in principle turn out to be impractical in reality—with two key examples being the notion of forcing debt-for-equity swaps to address debt overhangs and forcing banks to accept government capital. These both run hard afoul of the constraint that there is no legal mechanism to make them happen. A lesson for academics is that any time the word "force" is used as a verb ("the policy should be to force banks to do X or Y"), the next sentence should set forth the section of the U.S. legal code that allows such a course of action—otherwise, the policy suggestion is of theoretical but not practical interest. Legal constraints bound in other ways as well, including with respect to modifications of loans.
Today's news (Clusterstock + source docs, WSJ Deal Journal, McArdle, Naked Capitalism, Calculated Risk, Marketwatch), that Henry Paulson, um, forced Bank of America's near suicidal merger with Merill Lynch kind of clinches the case. Pre-Merrill, BOA was viewed as relatively healthy among large banks. What's the statute under which a Treasury secretary unilaterally fires and replaces the board of a healthy bank? The Paulson Treasury talked up legal constraints whenever they were faced with something Paulson didn't want to do. When Paulson, or Bernanke, really did want to do something, they were very creative about bending the law to their will. The Fed's "special purpose vehicles" are clearly not lending in the sense that the architects of the Federal Reserve Acts "unusual and exigent circumstances" clause foresaw. The FDIC has no statutory authority to issue ad hoc guarantees of bank debt, but flexibility was read into the laws.
With respect to the banks, the Paulson Treasury could have forced any big bank into a bail-out or receivership scenario just by looking at it funny, or by having the Fed take a conservative view of bank asset collateral values under the special liquidity programs. It's worth noting that Treasury very ostentatiously forced banks to accept TARP capital, and Geithner's Treasury was able to persuade holders of Citi preferred to convert to common equity.
It's not exactly right to say that our don't-ask-don't-tell quasinationalization policy has given us "ownership but not control". An assertive Treasury secretary has tremendous leverage over zombie bank managers. Instead, what we have is is control without accountability. An informal, unauditable, hydra-headed set of private managers and public officials controls how quasinationalized banks behave. Neither taxpayers nor shareholders have reason to believe that decisions are being taken in their interest. The informality and disunity of control impedes the kind of hands-on, detail-oriented supervision and risk management that ought to be the core preoccupation of bank managers. Exactly as opponents of nationalization feared, America's large banks are poorly run behemoths that routinely make idiotic commercial decisions to satisfy tacit political mandates. No one really knows who is responsible for what.
Ironically, there might be less scope for political control if banks were in formal, least-cost-resolution receivership. A bank that has already failed cannot fail. If independent boards are appointed to oversee the receiverships, politicians might have very little leverage. Incumbent private managers face collapse, sacking, disgrace, and potential civil and criminal liability for improprieties that come to light during the post-mortem. New moderately paid, high reputation board members would bear no responsibility for what came before, and could very publicly resign in protest if pushed to act in a manner inconsistent with their charter. (Resignation in protest by long-affiliated board members of a zombie bank would have different reputational consequences, and it would be difficult to recruit high-reputation outsiders to serve on zombie bank boards.) Promoting insiders or recalling retired executives to run zombie firms leaves the leadership weak and compromised. A much higher caliber of outside talent could be recruited to oversee banks in receivership than would accept responsibility for banks that are insolvent but on government life support.
This is not to say that formal public control would be a panacea. The list of public and quasipublic organizations currently being gutted by politically motivated credit expansion includes Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, FHA, FHLB, FDIC, and the Federal Reserve system. A bank in receivership managed by a weak board or not institutionally segregated from political bodies could easily join the list. But if received banks were put under strong boards, and given clear mandates to divide and sell their assets (maximizing taxpayer value subject to a scale constraint) while running off their lending books, there would be little hazard of politically directed credit or other shenanigans. That would imply that large insolvent banks would reduce their lending, contradicting the Administration's endless exhortations that banks should lend, lend, lend. My view is that public encouragement of expanding indebtedness is very bad policy (read Finem Respice). But if you misguidedly believe that "credit is the lifeblood of a modern economy", the thousands of well-run smaller banks in America are fully capable of taking advantage of today's deeply subsidized lending spreads to serve creditworthy borrowers. Whether in private or in public hands, the big, broken banks are simply too compromised to lend.
|Steve Randy Waldman — Friday April 24, 2009 at 1:53am||permalink|