Who is being bailed out? Who benefits?

The way the proposed bailout is being talked up, you get the impression that the whole world depends on the Bush administration and the Fed coming to the party with the best part of a trillion dollars. The US economy depends on it, our economy depends on it, the capacity of the US to resist wicked people in foreign lands, even the ongoing success story of the Chinese powerhouse (and hence our mining sector) etc. The implication is that we are all being bailed out.

But there are dissenting voices, claiming that the bailout of badly managed financial institutions will have more downsides than upsides, in the form of inflation and further damage to the dollar, plus the message that the US Government will come to the rescue whenever serious mistakes are made by large numbers of borrowers and lenders (a la the Savings and Loans debacle).

The dissenters claim that the failure of some financial institutions on Wall Street will simply represent the market catching up with bad practices.

Hence the rescue package cannot prevent so-called economic disruptions. If anything, government intervention would make these disruptions much worse. Again, a better alternative is to let the market do the job. The market’s ability to make swift adjustments without much drama was vividly illustrated only a few weeks ago when the very large investment bank, Lehman Brothers, was allowed to go belly up. The world did not come to an end. Instead, this was a healthy development. A money loser was eliminated from the market. This freed up resources to promote growth.

One could have made the case that when Lehman was on the brink it was too big to fail assets of $639 billion and employing over 26,000 people. Yet in a few days the market, once allowed to do the job, reallocated the good pieces of Lehman to various buyers and the bad parts have vanished.

Likewise Merrill Lynch, which was bought by the Bank of America, will see the good parts of it reinforced while the useless parts are likely to be removed.

On September 18, 2008, Washington Mutual, the largest US saving and loan bank, was forced into liquidation. The bank had $307 billion in assets and $188 billion in deposits. What prompted the closure are heavy losses on its $227 billion book of real-estate loans, of which a large portion was in subprime mortgages.

The bank lost $6.3 billion in the nine months ending June 30. Against this background, and coupled with customers withdrawing $16.7 billion over the past ten days, government regulators decided to close the bank.

Observe that this was the largest US banking failure. Note that the closure of the bank didn’t result in the end of the world. JP Morgan Chase bought some of the good assets of Washington Mutual for $1.9 billion.

They suggest that the amount of economic activity tied up in real estate loans represents a very small percentage of the national GDP so it should be kept in perspective. They point out that the US is an economic powerhouse and the productive capacity of the real economy remains in place – the infrastrucure, even the houses, the people, the skills and all the other banks and financial institutions that have maintained sensible commercial lending policies.

Nicholas will be relieved to read that I don’t claim to know enough to pontificate but I am prepared to ask some simple questions that need to be answered so bewildered people can get a grip on the issue.

1. Who is actually being bailed out? How is the trillion dollars going to be divided up? Who benefits?

2. What happens to the home loan defaulters in the event of (a) the bailout (b) no bailout? Are they in the street or do they get to re-negotiate their repayments?

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15 years ago

Excellent questions. Actually, it turns out the bill before the US Congress gives wide discretion to the Secretary of the Treasury to determine who will be bailed out and how. The complete bill, now called HR 3997, The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, can be found here.

My blog has devoted a few posts to this topic. See The Bailout Explained by the CBO for a summary of and links to comments by the Director of the Congressional Budget Office, a non-partisan research bureau of the US Congress. See also The Case Against the Paulson Plan for a link to extended commentary by University of Chicago economist Robert Shimer. My own humble comments on the whole sorry mess can be found in “Can the Banking System Hold Water?”

Note that I am not the very excellent James Farrell from Australia, but a poor cousin laboring in the States.

15 years ago

The objective of the bailout plan is to get the “toxic waste” (junk collateralised debt obligations and the like) out into the light of day. Because all this stuff was sold in over-the-counter markets rather than in a securities exchange, nobody knows who’s holding it and it’s suspected that there is still a lot yet to be publicly revealed.

The effect is that a bank that looks sound on the surface may not be. As a consequence the interbank lending market has seized up. The Ben/Hank plan is intended to offer banks a chance to confess and a buyer who will take their toxic junk (at a pricing basis that is yet to be agreed), thus restoring a degree of trust to the industry.

Leaving aside the fact that Congress has currently rejected the plan, it could fail in a number of possible ways. The amount of junk might turn out to be more than is currently thought and Congress could balk at seeing the initiative through to completion. Alternatively, banks may see the conditions of the scheme (surrendering part of their ownership to the government, cap on executive remuneration etc) as too onerous and decide to simply tough it out.

As to who ultimately benefits, a great deal depends on the pricing basis that is agreed. Michael Hiltzik, writing in the Los Angeles Times the other day reports:

some economists say that the mortgage-backed securities the Treasury proposes to buy from crippled banks have been so beaten down in price that taxpayers could actually profit once the market for these securities — now virtually nonexistent — unfreezes.

“It’s entirely within the realm of possibility that we’ll make money on this deal,” says J. Bradford DeLong, professor of economics at UC Berkeley.

DeLong observes that several government bailouts of the past have ended up in the black, including the 1994 rescue of the Mexican peso. The U.S. government eventually recorded a $500-million profit on its share of Mexico’s $50-billion international loan package.

Of more immediate relevance, the government’s takeover of stricken insurance company American International Group may have already produced a paper profit, and could produce more gains as AIG’s asset portfolio is sold off or recovers its value.

“Very senior people in charge of asset portfolios on Wall Street have said they are envious of the terms the government imposed on AIG,” DeLong says. “They think the Fed’s going to make a fortune.” He conjectures that the $700-billion bank bailout could yield somewhere between a $100-billion loss and a $100-billion gain.

Paulson has also endorsed requiring banks that sell troubled assets to the government to give some sort of equity warrant, so that taxpayers can share in profits once those institutions recover financially.

But questions about the ultimate bill to taxpayers continue to drive alternative proposals to contain the credit crisis roiling international markets.

Rafe, I think the article by Frank Shostak you quoted rather misses the point. Wholesale credit markets are currently dysfunctional and the “invisible hand” that Mises adherents champion has become paralysed. Markets are currently affected by what Nassim Nicholas Taleb would describe as a black swan occurrent and abnormal action may be needed to unclog them.

15 years ago

Meanwhile, in the real world, the people of the USA, still can’t afford their mortgage due to a combination of rising interest rates, job losses and not buying something within their means in the first place. So we still have people being thrown out of their homes, and we still have houses going empty and getting vandalised. We still have huge military payments with the US defense budget crossing the 600 gigadollars per annum mark (and always rising). That is approx $20000 being spent every second.

The bailout is fantasy land, it is an exercise in paper shuffling and political distraction. None of the intrinsics change. Just for completeness I’ll paste in Section 8:

Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.

Which translates to, “gimme cash, I’ll take it and do what I like, when it fails you will have no comeback.” Every basic rule of economics, good governance, and common sense says it can’t work.

Until the people of the US can stand up to this sort of piracy, their country is going to sink like a stone. Think Titanic here, noise of grinding ice and people saying, “nothing to worry about, unsinkable don’t you know”.


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