My first thought is an old doctrine. If we could get the people who supposedly represent the people to formally acknowledge the insolvency of the institutions we are bailing out, there is a wide-ranging doctrine known as "fraudulent conveyance" that might help. Payments by a bankrupt firm during the period preceding the bankruptcy are subject to challenge and reversal, under the theory that preferential transfers by insolvent firms to some parties rather than others are inequitable. I don't know, from a legal perspective, how far back and how broadly the doctrine of fraudulent transfer could be applied to insolvent financials, but it's possible that a formal insolvency (e.g. a nationalization or receivership) could put a lot of people who got paid by banks during the boom at risk.
Yves Smith pointed this out a while back. I think it's worth taking a moment to wonder whether and how much the political resistance to formal nationalization is due to fears on the part of well-connected executives of being clawed-back via this doctrine. (Has fraudulent conveyance been aggressively pursued with respect to the Lehman bankruptcy? If not, why not?)
I hasten to add that I know very little about the legal details of fraudulent conveyance, whether it could in fact be applied to large, insolvent financials, what if any legislative action would be required to make the doctrine bite effectively, etc. I do know that even good-faith sellers of firms into leveraged buyouts are quite terrified of fraudulent conveyance, since even healthy firms become risky after the levering up and capital extraction that often followed these deals, and the former owners of previously viable firms can be made to take a serious hit. People who might know stuff about this (Buce?) are encouraged to weigh in. If we treated nationalizations as insolvency for the purpose of fraudulent conveyance, could we do some clawing back? Or is this a ridiculous idea?
Another way we could claw back is to simply enact a special tax on all recipients of income from firms receiving public support. Again, we are partially screwed by Hank Paulson's cynical strategy of encouraging healthy firms to camouflage the rotten ones by accepting TARP funds. But we might set a deadline for the return of public capital, to encourage the healthy trend of banks returning unneeded public support. People who received income as an employee or contractor of banks requiring continued public support during 2004-2007 could be subject to a special, retroactive tax on that income. The IRS presumably has W-2s and 1099s by which they can identify those who would be liable.
This is obviously mean and unfair to many innocent bank employees, and cuts against the America tradition of eschewing collective justice. To diminish the meanness, the special tax could be progressive in the amount of income collected, so that janitors and tellers at Citibank wouldn't be unduly hit. It could be spread over several years, to help people finance the unexpected charge. But, however imperfect, this sort of tax would be far better targeted than future taxes that penalize Americans broadly, or even forward looking tax levies on financials that (if we get our act together) might be very different from the dinosaurs and innocent of their sins. (Should prosper.com pay for the excesses of Citibank?) Administration of the tax should be straightforward and comprehensive, as even the sharkiest of sharks working for putrescent financials wouldn't have seen this one coming a few years ago and contrived to hide the source of paychecks from Citi.
Of course, it would set a precedent going forward, so highly-paid agents of firms capable of forcing a bail-out might seek get paid via squirrelly networks of special-purpose vehicles in order to evade future clawbacks. But that is a feature, not a bug. One problem with our financial system is that it was easy for basically decent people to engineer rapacious and fraudulent practices while persuading themselves it was respectable work. Acting in a manner that yields private short-term profits in exchange for catastrophic risk to taxpayers and the economy is not respectable work. People who find they have to launder their paychecks like drug dealers are less likely to get confused about that (and less likely to be dealt with mildly if they push us to the edge again).
If we do this kind of thing, we should make it clear that its purpose is to cover actual rescue costs, not to arbitrarily discourage risk-taking. (I'd view it as similar to how people who get stuck on mountains are sometimes billed for the cost of their search-and-rescue.) Agents of firms that are clearly small enough to fail could rest assured that the taxman would have no claim against people caught in private tragedies. Fear of such a tax might discourage managers and executives from building up large or insidiously interlinked firms and then capitalizing on an implicit "too big to fail" guarantee. Firms may be too big to fail, but the people who make them that way needn't be invulnerable.
Update: Reader Paul Morelli directs us to the excellent Adam Levitin at Credit Slips on the subject of fraudulent conveyance and bonuses. See also the comments, in which Tom Grey suggests a "windfall bonus tax".
Update 2: Skeptical CPA has a great deal about bankruptcies and fraudulent transfers, for example here. He also points to this interesting summary of bankruptcy scams. To reiterate the connection between this stuff and current events, if the government bails out an insolvent bank by making creditors and counterparties whole, that is like a bankruptcy, except the government steps into the shoes of creditors and takes the hit they otherwise would take. Conduct that would harm private creditors in a bankruptcy harm the taxpayer in a bailout, and in theory should be litigated just as aggressively by the aggrieved party, which is all of us. However, by preventing any formal declaration of insolvency, bailouts enable scavengers to avoid the whole skein of case law surrounding bankruptcy, which tends to put people who extract benefits from a firm while it is foreseeably bust in jeopardy.
Update 3: Buce weighs in on fraudulent transfer (and distinguishes them usefully from preferential transfers) in the comments. His conclusion? "...maybe less here than meets the eye." Thanks Buce! Not too many comments on the tax idea, which I thought the more incendiary of the two proposals...
- 8-Mar-2009, 4:40 a.m. EDT: Added update re creditslips post.
- 8-Mar-2009, 12:15 p.m. EDT: Updated with stuff from Sketical CPA.
- 8-Mar-2009, 5:15 p.m. EDT: Added update re comment from Buce.