Capitalism without losses is not capitalism

Economist Russ Roberts put forth the idea that the financial crisis was caused, in part, by moral hazard resulting from a history of taxpayer financed bank bailouts and the implicit taxpayer guarantees on mortgages that were manifested in  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Roberts’ white paper Gambling With Other People’s’ Money: How Perverted Incentives Caused the Financial Crisis was released last April.  This is from the Executive Summary of the white paper:

Over the last three decades, government policy has coddled creditors, reducing the risk they face from financing bad investments. Not surprisingly, this encouraged risky investments financed by borrowed money. The increasing use of debt mixed with housing policy, monetary policy, and tax policy crippled the housing market and the financial sector. Wall Street is not blameless in this debacle. It lobbied for the policy decisions that created the mess.

Roberts goes on to say that gambling with other people’s money is wrongly mistaken with capitalism and capitalism was then incorrectly blamed for the crisis.

I agree with Roberts, but I haven’t seen many who have shown outright support for his hypothesis.  It seems others believe the moral hazard link is tenuous at best.  However, now the Administration might agree, according to this Wall Street Journal editorial.  From the editorial:

The Administration puts the case for federal withdrawal from the broader housing market in compelling terms: “The strength of this option is that it would minimize distortions in capital allocation across sectors, reduce moral hazard in mortgage lending and drastically reduce direct taxpayer exposure to private lenders’ losses.”

I believe Roberts said it best when he said:

Capitalism is a profit and loss system.  Profits encourage risk-taking.  Losses encourage prudence.

If you reduce or limit the losses because you believe that helps someone (home buyers), you also reduce the prudence of the lenders and increase the risk-taking.  And you no longer have capitalism.

Lying to the Public

Here’s another good column from Thomas McClanahan of the Kansas City Star, Fannie, Freddie lit match for our conflagration.  Very slowly the real story is making its way into the newspapers.  Though, this is an opinion piece by one of the two or three public conservatives the Kansas City Star has on staff.

McClanahan sums it up nicely in his final paragraph:

At the top of the to-do list for the financial crisis commission should be finding out who was responsible for lying to the public about the mortgages bought by Fan and Fred, using money backed up by taxpayers.

Though, I must emphasize, very slowly.  If the financial crisis commission finds the truth they may find a few people who are heralded by the media and are playing important roles in shaping legislation and running agencies in DC now.

Further imagine if the truth were that these people had names like John McCain, Sarah Palin and George W. Bush (which they don’t), but imagine if they do.  If these people lied to the public, don’t you think we’d all know about it by now?  The major newspapers would be drilling it home, TV news and magazine shows would have had deep exposes, Saturday Night Live would have performed skits.

But, since the truth doesn’t fit the narrative it will likely stay on the recesses of the opinion pages for some time to come.

George Schultz on PBS

Frustrated with Tiger Woods banality on the major networks last night, I switched on PBS and caught a segment on the Lehrer News Hour with George Schultz discussing his belief that the financial crisis was due to the government creating a moral hazard with it’s ‘too big to fail’ bail-out nonsense.  He asks, if they’re too big to fail, why not make them smaller?  Great question.

I highly recommend watching the video.  Click here and it should be the first video listed on the left of the screen.

I nearly fell out of my chair.  Finally, some reason in media.  Good job Lehrer.  Getting warmer.

Moral hazard is the unintuitive lingo economists use to describe the idea that if someone or something is there to bail you out, you do things differently than you would if you didn’t have that backup.

If somebody knows they’ll be bailed out, they take excessive risks because they do it [take risks] on the taxpayers dollar.  The whole system is badly damaged when bailouts occur because it takes accountability out of the system and the market system depends on accountability, so we have to design a system so that anybody in it can fail.

The interviewer, who I hope was playing dumb for his audience (I think he was), asks Shultz if this is something he’s seen in the past or “is this a new phenomenon?”   This isn’t new.

This is everyday human behavior  that’s been around since the dawn of mankind.  If someone tells you they’ll pay for your retirement, you don’t save as much.  If you parents got you out of trouble when you were a kid, you got into more trouble.

Schultz explained two examples from the past to illustrate moral hazard.

First was a strike the longshoreman in 1968.  President Johnson enjoined the strike to prevent national emergency.  When Nixon took office and Schultz became his Secretary of Labor, another strike fired up, why not?  The President is going to help them get what we want to avoid a national emergency.

Schultz said Johnson was wrong and Nixon should stay out of it.  It would teach them “they have to take responsibility for their own actions,” kind of like the parent who finally learns they aren’t helping matters by soothing the temporary pain for the child who made a bad decision.  Nixon listened and the strikes died down.

Another example was with the failure Penn Central railroad.  The railroad grossly managed their affairs.  The Federal Reserve Chairman, Arthur Burns, wanted to give Penn Central a bailout to prevent a massive failure of the financial system.  Sound familiar?

In the end, he didn’t bail them out because they had retained Burns’ former law firm and a bailout would look too suspicious.  Penn Central failed.  There was no ripple effect.  The economy kept chugging.

While Schultz said a lot of good things in the interview, that wasn’t the part that fascinated me.  What fascinated me was that there was no yelling.  He wasn’t chastised for challenging today’s conventional wisdom that markets failed.  He was allowed to state his case and rationale in a calm manner and the interviewer tried to understand his points, rather than stuff him in the face with populist lay-ups.

I could imagine Matt Lauer conducting the same interview.  When Schultz said that staying out of the strikes would teach them they they need to take responsibility for their actions, I could envision Lauer cutting him off and asking him in his condescending tone something like, “but don’t you think the longshoremen need the muscle of the government behind them, because the companies have all the bargaining power?”  Or, “shouldn’t we have bailed out Penn Central?  X thousands lost their jobs.”

Then Lauer wouldn’t have given Schutlz a chance to explain that the end result of the actions that weren’t taken were far away better than what would have happened after the temporary soothing of the government action, much like the parent who finally decides its time for their kids to learn a lesson.

Tick, tick, tick

In an interview on 60 Minutes this evening, Obama blamed Wall Street bankers for the nation’s financial troubles.  If I remember correctly, the question was asked if banks are repaying TARP funds so they could pay their CEOs big bonuses.  To that, Obama said that he thinks that’s a motivation and that Wall Street still doesn’t get it that everyone is mad at them for causing the financial mess (paraphrased from memory).

What’s sad is that many American accept this explanation and we never hold government accountable for their role in the mess.

A true leader would own up to it.  Wall Street certainly played a role in the financial crisis, but they by no means acted alone.  This is where journalism needs to DO IT’S JOB!

Here are some great questions I would have loved to ask President Obama at that point:

1.  Do you think the government or government agencies had any role in the financial crisis or did Wall Street act alone?

2. Do you believe the Federal Reserve should have acted quicker to remove excess money supply after it seemed that the economy got back on track after 9/11?

3. You don’t believe that government put pressure on banks to make credit easier (i.e. lend to people they would normally consider high credit risks) in order to push this idea of expanding home ownership?

4. Didn’t the government provide implicit guarantees to subprime lending, again to expand home ownership, through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac?

5. Wasn’t Fannie and Freddie one of the largest, if not largest, provider of these bad loans?  And weren’t they acting under direction from Congress?

6.  Weren’t regulations proposed in 2004 that would have reduced the risk of the housing crisis by making it tougher to get loans, but those regulations were rejected by Congress because they would have interfered with the goal of expanding home ownership?

6.  In order for us to better trust your leadership, shouldn’t we expect you to be honest about government’s role in the financial mess?  Rather, you seem to pretend that government has not blame and we should continue to blindly trust the government as you want to expand regulatory power even further.

7. Please tell me, how are the new financial regulatory powers that your administration is proposing different from those in 2004?  Why didn’t the current regulations not work to prevent the crisis?  Did anyone in government not even recognize that a crisis was about to happen?  If not, how can we trust those in government to recognize the next crisis?

8. What do you think about the people who borrowed well beyond their means?  Shouldn’t they have acted more prudently?  Shouldn’t we expect our citizens, who are provided thirteen years of education with a total valued at $150,000, to make responsible financial choices?  Shouldn’t we expect them to be able to read and understand a loan document and do their homework about the realities and responsibilities that come with home ownership?

9. What personal finance advice would you give Americans?

10.  Some say that people were motivated to borrow beyond their means because they felt that home prices were appreciating so rapidly that they could always sell the house and make a nice profit.  In other words, they were borrowing on future hopes rather than their realistic income.  Don’t you think that the government’s finances are reflecting that same behavior?  We are borrowing beyond our means with the hope that the economy will grow strong and pay for it.  Haven’t we learned our lesson here?  Don’t we know how this story is likely to end?