I find it really depressing that I have to write this. But it seems I have to write it.
Substantially all of the TARP funds advanced to banks have been paid back, with interest and sometimes even with a profit from sales of warrants. Most of the (much larger) extraordinary liquidity facilities advanced by the Fed have also been wound down without credit losses. So there really was no bailout, right? The banks took loans and paid them back.
Suppose you buy fire insurance from Inflammable Insurance. You pay $1000 for a year of insurance. There is no fire, so you make no claim. Next year, you find a different provider offering a better price, and you switch.
Soon after your relationship has ended, you discover that Inflammable failed to pay any claims at all during the year you were insured, because all customer premiums were diverted to the Cayman Islands and then spent on kiddy porn and Pez. Were you defrauded? Do you have any cause for complaint? After all, ex post your cash flows turned out to be the same as if you had been dealt with fairly.
Of course you have been defrauded. You did not get what you had paid for. You had paid for Inflammable to bear risk on your behalf. It did not do so. The money you paid was simply stolen.
In financial markets, risk-bearing is the ultimate commodity. It is what financial market participants buy and sell. As a financial speculator, I spend exorbitant amounts of money buying out-of-the-money options to limit my downside risk. The vast majority of those options expire worthless, just like the vast majority of fire insurance policies end with no claims paid. If only someone would give me all those options for free, or sell them to me for half the market price, or reimburse the cost of the options that I never end up using, I would be rich. Seriously, given the years I’ve been in this game, I’d be pretty set if I had my option premiums back. It doesn’t seem fair at all that I am confined to a modest middle-class life because I had to buy all this insurance I never used.
Cash is not king in financial markets. Risk is. The government bailed out major banks by assuming the downside risk of major banks when those risks were very large, for minimal compensation. In particular, the government 1) offered regulatory forbearance and tolerated generous valuations; 2) lent to financial institutions at or near risk-free interest rates against sketchy collateral (directly or via guarantee); 3) purchased preferred shares at modest dividend rates under TARP; 4) publicly certified the banks with stress tests and stated “no new Lehmans”. By these actions, the state assumed substantially all of the downside risk of the banking system. The market value of this risk-assumption by the government was more than the entire value of the major banks to their “private shareholders”. On commercial terms, the government paid for and ought to have owned several large banks lock, stock, and barrel. Instead, officials carefully engineered deals to avoid ownership and control.
But still. Everything worked out, right? It turns out that banks didn’t need to use the government’s giant insurance policy. It was just a panic after all!
Suppose my kid’s meth habit got the best of him. He’s needs to come up with $100K quick or his dealer’s gonna whack him. But he’s a good kid, really! Coulda happened to anyone. So I “lend” him the money, even though he has no visible means of support and the sketchiest loan sharks in town wouldn’t give him the time of day. Now I believe in bootstraps and hard work, individualism and self-reliance. So I tell my son. “Son, you are going to pay me back every penny of that loan. You are going to work it off. I have arranged with one of my golf buddies, a guy who owes me a favor or three, a job that pays $200K a year. You’d better show up every day at 9 a.m. and sit behind that desk, and get me back my money!” And he does! After a year, he’s made me whole. What a good kid.
No bail out, right? He paid me back every penny! Worked it off!
Bullshit. The opportunity I provided him, the $200K job that he would not have received without my intercession, was a huge grant. On the open market, if I were to accept bribes from the highest bidder to wangle the job from my friend, that opportunity would be worth more than the $100K advanced. I paid my son’s loan with my own money. I just obscured the cash flows, so my son and I can pretend and sustain our mutual self-regard and our righteous disdain for the moochers and the hippies and the riff-raff.
After assuming the banking system’s downside risk, the US government engineered a wide variety of favorable circumstances that helped banks “earn” their way back to quasi-health. The government provided famous and obvious transfers like unwinding AIG swaps at 100¢ on the dollar. It forced short-term yields to zero and created an environment in which medium-term interest rates would be capped for several years, granting banks a near-risk-free arbitrage for a while. It emitted trillions in excess reserves on which it continues to pay interest. It forewent investigations and prosecutions that by law it should actively pursue, and settled what enforcement it could not avoid for token fees. Then there are the things conspiracy theorists and cranks like me suspect but cannot prove: that the government and the Fed have been less than aggressive in minimizing their costs when they or entities they control (AIG, Fannie, Freddie) transact with large banks, that they have left money on the table where doing so could be hidden in arcane accounts or justified as ordinary transaction expenses and trading losses. Large banks have enjoyed some rather extraordinary results for allegedly efficient markets, quarters with large trading profits and no or very few losing days. Government housing policy is pretty overtly subject to a constraint that interventions must not provoke loss realizations for banks carrying bad loans at inflated values, or interfere with servicing revenues. (If you think I am overconspiratorial, I’m still waiting for an innocent explanation of this, from 1991.)
Pulling back from a shell game whose details are, by design, labyrinthine, check out the big picture. Since the beginning of the 3rd quarter of 2008 (Lehman quarter), US debt held by the public increased by 84%, from $5.28T to $9.75T (as of the end of Q2 2011). Depending on where you start, the growth rate of publicly held US debt prior to Q3 2008 had been ~8% per year (starting in 1970 or 1980) or ~4.5% (starting in 1990 or 2000). The growth rate since Q3-2008 has been 22.6% per year. The United States has issued between $3T and $4T more debt than would have been predicted by any reasonable estimate prior to the financial crisis. So far.
Hyman Minsky famously described crisis stabilization as a two-step process: First, the state/central-bank steps in as lender of last resort to halt the panic. Then the state must underwrite a program of massive deficit spending in order to “validate” — Minsky’s word — the fragile capital structures and the “innovative” business practices that proliferate during periods of tranquility.
Translating into current buzzwords, when the trouble begins there is a solvency crisis. It is converted into a liquidity crisis ex post by a firehose of net spending by the state. The current crisis has followed Minsky’s script perfectly. Banks’ ability to “pay back” bailouts has depended upon continued regulatory forbearance, tacit expectations of support if shit hits the fan again, and massive government debt issuance which resuscitated assets that would otherwise be worthless.
But who has lost anything from the bailouts? Wasn’t it a win-win? This all sounds very abstract. Where are the transfers?
If the government borrowed or printed a trillion dollars and gave the money to me, would there be any losers? If you don’t think there has been a wealth transfer, if you don’t think ordinary people have lost, please call your Congressperson and ask her to cut me a trillion dollar check. In some abstract sense, this policy of giving me money would push government debt higher. But that is so very vague a cost! I promise I’d do great things with a trillion dollars. My ideas are so much cooler than Goldman Sachs’, despite all the wholesome commercials they are running.
During the run-up to the financial crisis, bank managers, shareholders, and creditors paid themselves hundreds of billions of dollars in dividends, buybacks, bonuses and interest. Had the state intervened less generously, a substantial fraction of those payouts might have been recovered (albeit from different cohorts of stakeholders, as many recipients of past payouts had already taken their money and ran). The market cap of the 19 TARP banks that received more than a billion dollars each in assistance is about 550B dollars today (even after several of those banks’ share prices have collapsed over fears of Eurocontagion). The uninsured debt of those banks is and was a large multiple of their market caps. Had the government resolved the weakest of the banks, writing off equity and haircutting creditors, had it insisted on retaining upside commensurate with the fraction of risk it was bearing on behalf of stronger banks, the taxpayer savings would have run from hundreds of billions to a trillion dollars. We can get into all kinds of arguments over what would have been practical and legal. Regardless of whether the government could or could not have abstained from making the transfers that it made, it did make huge transfers. Bank stakeholders retain hundreds of billions of dollars against taxpayer losses of the same, relative to any scenario in which the government received remotely adequate compensation first for the risk it assumed, and then for quietly moving Heaven and Earth to obscure and (partially) neutralize that risk.
The banks were bailed out. Big time.
- 1-Dec-2011, 7:20 a.m. EST: Light edits: “received more than a billion dollars each in assistance”; “weakest of
thosethe banks”; “that he would not otherwisehave received without my intercession,“; “like payingunwinding AIG swaps”; “entities they controlscontrol”