Thursday, March 12, 2009

As long as the Too Big To Fail doctrine holds, the banks’ implicit government guarantee is more explicit than it ever has been.

From The Baseline Scenario:

"Looting Goes Mainstream (Media)

with 3 comments

A week ago, Simon wrote his “Confusion, Tunneling, and Looting” post, which argued that the confusion created by crises helps the powerful and well-positioned siphon assets out of institutions and out of the government. The revelations that much of the AIG bailout money has gone straight to its large bank counterparties in the form of collateral could fall under this heading.

The looting theme has gone mainstream, with David Leonhardt in The New York Times. I think Leonhardt’s article is good, but it describes looting (taking advantage of implicit government guarantees to take excessive risks) as a cause of the mess we are now in - and as something we’ll need to worry about in preventing crises in the future. But, as Simon argued, it’s also something to worry about right now. As long as the Too Big To Fail doctrine holds, the banks’ implicit government guarantee is more explicit than it ever has been. So whatever perverse incentives helped bring on the crisis are even stronger today.

Written by James Kwak

March 12, 2009 at 8:15 am"


From Bloomberg:

“Most U.S. bank debt is held by insurers and foreign investors, with a small portion owned by mutual funds, said FTN’s Darst. The Investment Company Institute, a trade group representing mutual funds, doesn’t keep statistics on fund ownership of bank debt, spokeswoman Ianthe Zabel said.

Investors shouldn’t increase holdings that lack explicit government guarantees because “extreme losses” could force senior creditors to share in bailout costs, JPMorgan Chase & Co. said in a March 6 report by Srini Ramaswamy. While the scenario remains remote, owning the banks’ senior debt isn’t attractive when there’s concern about systemic risk, Ramaswamy wrote.

“We’re seeing the start of the next leg of the crisis and that’s going to be financial bondholders taking a haircut as lenders default,” Mehernosh Engineer, a London-based strategist at BNP Paribas SA, said this week. “There’s been a perception that banks’ senior bondholders are untouchable, but that’s going to change.”

Look at who owns this debt: Insurers, Foreign Investors.

Let’s say we allow defaults on this. Who are the insurers? Will we simply have to then prop them up instead? Have you seen any recent headlines about insurers being the next big problem?

Foreign investors? Try this:

“It turns out that one of China’s main criticism of US policy is simple: the government didn’t stand by institutions that China expected the US to support. Lehman. Wamu. And the Reserve Primary Fund. Dean, Areddy and Ng:

“Leaders in China, the world’s third-largest economy, have been surprised and upset over how much the problems of the U.S. financial sector have hurt China’s holdings. In response, Beijing is re-examining its U.S. investments, say people familiar with the government’s thinking. …

Chinese leaders have felt burned by a series of bad experiences with U.S. investments they had believed were safe, say people familiar with their thinking, including holdings in Morgan Stanley, the collapsed Reserve Primary Fund and mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”

….. The Reserve issue “is causing a lot of concern with a lot of financial institutions in China,” said the Chinese official. Some officials expected that the U.S. and its financial institutions would better protect China from loss. “If the U.S. is treating us this way, eventually that will be enough cause for concern in the stability of the [U.S.] system,” the official said.”

Why does this bother me? Because this shifts the focus to Treasuries. From Buiter:

“In addition to (1) and (2) being met, there must be sufficient ‘fiscal spare capacity’ - confidence and trust in the financial markets and among permanent-income consumers, that the government will raise future taxes or cut future public spending by the same amount, in present discounted value terms, that they want to boost spending or cut taxes today. Without this confidence and trust, financial markets and forward-looking consumers will be spooked by the spectre of unsustainable fiscal deficits. Fear of future monetisation of public debt and deficits, or of future sovereign default will cause nominal and real long-term interest rates to rise. Ultimately, the sovereign will be rationed out of its own debt market. The US government (and the US economy as a whole) will encounter a ’sudden stop’.

These are not tales to frighten the children. I am deeply concerned that, when the US Federal government starts to run Federal budget deficits of 14 percent of GDP or over, the markets will get spooked and will simply refuse to fund the US authorities at any interest rate. Summers’ naive proposal for expansion now, virtue later, is simply not credible given the political economy of the US budget, now and in the foreseeable future.”

We’re in a bind. Either we default on these bonds, leading foreign investors to suspect that we’re default happy, or we guarantee the bonds, possibly adding to our debt. In all honesty, it might be better to guarantee the debt, and pray we don’t have to honor it.

Since I consider looting ( govt guarantees ) and fraud, negligence, collusion, and fiduciary mismanagement, as the main causes of this crisis, I don’t like giving in. But it’s important to consider that, in this case, we’re giving in to foreign investors who we need, and insurers who will probably come calling as well with lobbying debts in tow. The one benefit is that it would make seizure easier.

So, let’s guarantee the bondholders, and seize the big banks, and remember that this isn’t going to be a battle quickly won.

Just one view.

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