Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Fool Me Twice

January 14, 2009, 8:10 a.m.

"Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me"
(Brought to you by*)

We're going to look back on the current rush to provide the second $350 billion to the banking industry as a tragic, tragic, mistake. Mark my words.

And not just my words, but those of the World Economic Forum -- an organization of some of the, as the name suggests, world's most influential economists and corporate CEOs -- the very folks you'd expect to be enthusiastic about gifts of billions from grateful taxpayers.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not going to delight in saying "I told you so" sometime on down the road. My most fervent wish is that I'll be saying "well, I sure got that one backwards." But I fear I'm right.

The following assertions are those of someone who is neither ideologue nor academic economist. I'm just an ordinary citizen taxpayer, hopefully with some common sense and a small dollop of cynicism, who tries to learn from experience. Like Will Rogers, "all I know is what I read in the papers;" it's just that my newspaper reading isn't limited to American papers.

This is not an argument for the proposition that a trillion-plus bailout of the banking, financial, investment and real estate mortgage industries would never be beneficial at some time, under some circumstances, for some individuals and businesses -- only that it is very, very wrong to do it at this time, under these circumstances, for these individuals and businesses.


1. They caused the problem. It seems fairly clear that our dire economic circumstances are the result of individuals' decisions -- whether the consequence of abysmal ignorance or cynical and selfish greed. They are not the result of "acts of God," only the acts of executives who thought themselves to be God. That makes them undeserving of bailouts. But who cares about that if by giving these undeserving millionaires hundreds of billions of dollars our economy turns around, the currently unemployed get jobs, and evicted former homeowners are back in their houses?

2. It didn't work. Many, including this blog, predicted that the $700 billion bailout wouldn't produce jobs, put folks back in their homes, and boost the economy. Those were just guesses, even if those who offered those warnings turned out to be right. Now there are more than guesses. There is data; the results of the first $350 billion are known. Unemployment is up; the economy has continued to spiral down. Knowing that it didn't work the first time, why would we try it a second.

3. The recipients have proven they aren't trustworthy. Sure, the Congress and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson screwed up big time. But the recipients knew what the money was for, and it wasn't for squirreling away to increase reserves, buying other banks, dividends, and executive bonuses. Having created the problem by putting their own selfish greed ahead of the public interest, we should not be surprised that, given the opportunity, they would be inclined to keep the money rather than let those billions of dollars slip through their fingers and "trickle down" to their desperate neighbors. But OK, so they fooled us once. Now why are we setting ourselves up to be fooled again? Are these really the best guys to trust with another addition to a national debt we're leaving to our grandchildren?

(For details regarding how banks are using taxpayers' money in fact, as distinguished from theory and intention -- along with criticisms similar to my own and those of the World Economic Forum
regarding the bailout approach -- see the excerpts from a story in today's [January 14] New York Times at the bottom of this blog entry: "In Michigan, Bank Lends Little of Its Bailout Funds.")

4. Stop digging. "When you find yourself in a hole the first thing to do is to stop digging." Our economic problem is, in large measure, irresponsible levels of debt -- multi-trillion-dollar national debt, mortgages, student loans and credit card balances beyond our means. And just why is it that additional debt is the solution to our debt problem?

5. Conditions first, money second. Even if this were a wise and warranted strategy, and the recipients who let us down in the past were now paragons of virtue, what's the rush? "If you don't give me $350 billion by tomorrow the economy will collapse." We fell for that once. "Show me the money?" -- No, not until you show me the details, the business plan. What is it about economists and financiers and their three-page proposals for near-trillion-dollar expenditures? (Yes, like Henry Paulson, Larry Summers is also offering a three-page letter of explanation.) Who's getting this money? What are they required to do with it? What oversight will be provided? What if (again) they violate the conditions? What is a reasonable prediction, scenario, as to what is going to happen as a result of this additional national debt?

6. Exit strategy. President-elect Obama "intends to agree to Pentagon plans to send up to 30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan in order to gain time to review the conflict" -- rather than learning from the Russian experience there, and focus on designing an exit strategy. AFP, "Obama to review Afghan strategy, approve troop increase," January 13, 2009. Unfortunately, his current approach to the coming economic depression also lacks an "exit strategy" -- that is to say, a long term plan, reasonably rational on its face, that takes us beyond the current one more bailout at a time approach. Where are we headed? What are we doing and why? What is our long term strategy and how reasonable are we in thinking it will work? I don't get this from Obama, his team, or our congressional leaders.

Now here's the news, along with the World Economic Forum's concerns:

President-elect Barack Obama worked Capitol Hill, trying to persuade Democratic senators not to block a request for the last $350 billion of the bailout funds and assuring them that he is willing to use his veto power if they do so. . . . "[T]he bulk" of the remaining TARP rescue funds would be used to invest in banks and other financial institutions . . .. Many Senate Republicans, meanwhile, continued to insist that Obama's team has provided too few details about how they would use the money. Many said they are seeking a written statement detailing Obama's intentions that goes beyond the three-page letter submitted to congressional leaders Monday by Obama economic adviser Lawrence H. Summers. . . . "Members need to know how the Obama administration is going to carry out this bill -- and we need to know not just statements of principle, but what they are willing to bind themselves morally to do," said Brad Sherman (D-Calif.).

Obama is making personal calls to Democrats and Republicans to urge them to release the money, and Democratic leaders were confident that he would prevail on a matter he told them he considers the "first vote" of his administration.
Neil Irwin and David Cho, "Fed Backs Obama's Bailout Request," Washington Post, January 14, 2009, p. A1.

To the extent there are any details, they are not encouraging. The AP reports, "Frank's bill would require $40 billion to $100 billion of the bailout money to be spent on mitigating foreclosures [$40 billion is scarcely 10% of the funds] and . . . require the Treasury Department to use nonbailout resources to increase demand for home purchases [even though, while appealing to realtors and bankers, purchasing a home now is the furthest thing from the minds of those who've just been thrown out of the home they thought they had]." (comments added) AP, "Highlights of New Bailout Proposals," January 13, 2009.

And, "Bank executives will get to fly their company jets after all. Financial institutions that get assistance through the $700-billion Troubled Asset Relief Program had faced a provision that recipients of the money would be prohibited from owning or leasing private aircraft. But Kansas is one of the nation's centers of aircraft manufacturing, and state lawmakers complained . . .. So yesterday, Barney Frank (D-Mass.), head of the House Financial Services Committee and the author of the bill, lifted the jet ban." AP, "Ban on Private Jets Lifted from Bailout Program," Newsday, January 14, 2009.

Meanwhile, the prestigious World Economic Forum is warning that government spending, and lack of long range planning, not only contains the possibility of doing little or no good, it may even "backfire" and end up doing considerable harm:

The World Economic Forum took a grim view of prospects for the world economy this year in a report released Tuesday, warning that government spending to counter the financial crisis could backfire. . . .

But the crux of the report was a prediction that "massive" government spending to support ailing financial institutions hit by the credit crisis could sow the seeds of more problems in the future.

Although it has been widely advocated, such spending is set to fuel big deficits in several major economies including Australia, Britain, France and the United States, WEF's "Global Risks 2009" report said.

"One of the biggest risks is that short-term crisis fighting may induce businesses and governments to lose the long term perspective on risk," said one of the contributors, Daniel Hofmann, chief economist for insurer Zurich Financial Services.
Agence France-Presse, "World Economic Forum Warns Government Bailouts Could Backfire," ABS CBN News, January 13, 2008.

Although I cannot yet find a copy of the organization's Global Risks 2009 report online, it has been providing similar warnings for years. See Global Risks 2008: A Global Risk Network Report, World Economic Forum, January 2008, and the earlier reports from January 2007 and 2006.

I hold out little hope that the industries containing some of America's most generous campaign contributors will not get their $350 billion -- and even less that it will do much good for those 305 million Americans who have taken the losses, and are bearing the hardship of the consequences of their selfish, irresponsible greed.


Excerpts from "In Michigan, Bank Lends Little of Its Bailout Funds":

The Treasury Department has invested $72 million out of the $700 billion in federal bailout funds to help prop up this community bank [Independent Bank of Michigan] . . ..

But Independent . . . is not doing much lending these days. So far it is using all of the government’s money to shore up its own weak finances by repaying short-term loans from the Federal Reserve. . . .

This is not what the Treasury Department had in mind when it started this program, saying it would give the nation’s “healthy banks” enough money to start lending again, so that people could buy homes and businesses could invest and create jobs, thereby invigorating a disintegrating economy. . . .

As of Tuesday, 257 financial institutions in 42 states had received $192 billion in capital injections from the Treasury’s Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, out of $250 billion set aside for this purpose. Seven giant banks — like JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup — have received more than 62 percent of the total so far, and have gotten most of the attention. . . .

Economists say the decision by banks like Independent to use the federal money for purposes other than lending, while perhaps disappointing, is not surprising, given that the Treasury Department did not honor its plan to give the money only to healthy banks.

“It’s a matter of logic — when you are in a perilous position, like many of them are, you try to bolster your balance sheet,” said Alan S. Blinder, a monetary policy economics professor at Princeton. “But this is a real flaw in the program.”

Some banking experts are even questioning if the bailout may be doing more harm than good, in some cases, by giving banks like Independent a cushion as they struggle to fix their problems, rather than forcing them to sink or swim on their own. It could also delay mergers of weaker banks with healthier ones.

“You are keeping a lot of troubled institutions in kind of a status quo state,” said Eric D. Hovde, the chief executive of a Washington-based hedge fund that invests in the banking industry. “They can continue on their merry ways.” In Congress, anger over the management of the TARP program runs deep. Many lawmakers say that there is little oversight, and that they can see no evidence that the taxpayer money is making its way from the coffers of banks to businesses and consumers. . . .

Some lawmakers have criticized the Treasury for allowing banks to use the government’s bailout money to acquire rival banks. . . .

“A lot of the money is already out there and the inspector general needs to get up to speed on how banks are using it,” said Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri. “We need to make sure we get this money back and the only way we can do that is with strong oversight on how this money is spent.” . . .

Mr. [Eric D. Hovde] Hovde, the hedge fund investor who says he believes the bailout program is putting off judgment day for many banks, said his fear was that many of the banks would burn through their federal money only to face a squeeze again. And they will never have made the extra loans that the Treasury had hoped would jump-start the economy.

Eric Lipton and Ron Nixon, "In Michigan, Bank Lends Little of Its Bailout Funds," New York Times, January 14, 2009.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.

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