Sunday, August 3, 2008

More Bail Ins, Less Bail Outs

Here is part of the Barron's interview with Roubini mentioned in the previous post. In this excerpt Roubini discusses how the government bailout of Wall Street should have had more bailing in of the creditors and investors. This approach would prevent systematic failure of the financial system without socializing the losses of Wall Street.

...How do you think Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has handled the crisis so far?

The Fed's performance has been poor. More than a year ago the Fed said the housing slump would end, but it hasn't. They kept repeating this was a subprime-debt problem only, whereas the problems of excessive credit involve subprime, near-prime, prime, commercial real estate, credit cards, auto loans, student loans, home-equity loans, leveraged loans, muni bonds, corporate loans -- you name it.

The Fed's other mistake was to believe the collapse of the housing market would have no effect on the rest of the economy, when housing accounted for a third of all job creation in the past few years. When the proverbial stuff started to hit the fan last summer, the Fed went into aggressive-easing mode. But it has always been kind of catching up.

What should Bernanke have done a year ago, or even prior to that?

The damage was done earlier, beginning when the Greenspan Fed lowered interest rates in 2001 after the bust of the technology bubble, and kept them too low for too long. They kept cutting the federal funds rate all the way to 1% through 2004, and then raised it gradually instead of quickly. This fed the credit and housing bubble.

Also, the Fed and other regulators took a reckless approach to regulating the financial sector. It was the laissez-faire approach of the Bush administration, and (tantamount to) self-regulation, which really means no regulation and a lack of market discipline. The banks' and brokers' risk-management models didn't make sense because no one listens to the risk managers in good times. As Chuck Prince (the deposed CEO of Citigroup) said, 'when the music plays you have to dance.'

Now the regulators are attempting to make up for lost time. What do you think of their efforts?

The paradox is they're going to the opposite pole. They are overregulating, bailing out troubled participants and intervening in every market. The Securities and Exchange Commission has accused others of trying to manipulate stocks, but the government itself is now the manipulator. The regulators should investigate themselves for bailing out Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE), the creditors of Bear Stearns and the financial system with new lending facilities. They have swapped U.S. Treasury bonds for toxic securities. It is privatizing the gains and profits, and socializing the losses, as usual. This is socialism for Wall Street and the rich.

So the government should have let Bear Stearns fail, not to mention Fannie and Freddie?

If you let Bear Stearns fail you can have a run on the entire banking system. But there are ways to manage Bear or Fannie and Freddie in a fairer way. If public money is to be put at stake, first all the shareholders of these companies have to be wiped out. Management has to be wiped out, and the creditors of Bear should have taken a hit. Why did the Fed buy $29 billion of the most toxic securities, and essentially bail out JPMorgan Chase (JPM), which bought Bear Stearns?

Because JPMorgan was a counter-party?

Exactly. The government bailed out everyone. Even the unsecured creditors of Fannie and Freddie should have taken a hit. Sometimes it is necessary to use public money to rescue institutions, but you do it in a way in which you're not bailing out those who made the mistakes. In each one of these episodes the government bailed out the shareholders, the bondholders and to some degree, management.


  1. The words "when the music plays, you have to dance" are extremely significant. Someone said that the best way to protect against manias, for individual actors, is to ride them and time the top.

    Of course, this leads to systemic hazard. When the music stops, there are a diminishing amount of chairs left. But with the Feds now providing for any furniture needs anyone may have... As long as the "friendly foreign funding" isn't drying up!

  2. One can only imagine how unfriendly the 'friendly foreign funding' sources may become if they continue to take capital losses on their U.S. investments.