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Saturday, September 27, 2008

"The Opposite of Moral Hazard"

John Hempton is upset over the the seizure of Washington Mutual. Justin Fox explains:

Australian money manager John Hempton owned Washington Mutual preferred shares and was thus wiped out when the bank was seized and flipped to JP Morgan Chase last week. But he's not mad about that. He's mad about what happened to owners of Wamu bonds. By also wiping out senior debt holders at Wamu, he argues, the government has now botched things in a profoundly serious way...

Hempton thinks that if the FDIC had simply liquidated Wamu, some money would have been left for the senior creditors. By choosing not to do that--presumably because it would have meant a big hit to the FDIC insurance fund--it has discouraged anybody else from providing that kind of credit to U.S. banks.

Here's (a short version of) John Hempton :

The reckless, irresponsible seizure of Washington Mutual: please read in Washington DC, by John Hempton: I lost money on this – so you can take my analysis with the caveat of a slightly angry grain of salt.

But I still think the seizure of Washington Mutual is the most capricious government action of this cycle and possibly the worst thing that has happened to American Capitalism this cycle. ...

Now what has the Government done here. It has confiscated the institution and sold everything except the liabilities marked equity, preferred, junior and senior. It confiscated the liquidation rights of the senior and junior debt. [It confiscated the liquidation rights of the preferreds too but that is an understood risk in owning preferreds. And whilst I lost money here I am far more angry about the other…]

If WaMu had been placed in liquidation I am pretty sure the seniors would have got something. If the senior debtors had been allowed to conduct an auction for WaMu (compromising all the junior stuff including the prefs I owned) then they would have got something.

Except that the liquation rights – well established order-of-creditor rights – were denied by a swift US Government action.

Now I understand that there is a strong policy presumption in favour of a quick government disposal of a failing institution – and that policy presumption might at some stage trump the rights of some holders of paper. However a pretty strong case must be made....

It would of course be more acceptable if there was a large body of evidence that the government put forward to justify their complete disregard for quite senior rights here. ... But in this case the Feds did very little to justify their decision. ...

The OTS/FDIC carried a risk – the risk being that the losses would be so large that would wind up costing the government money.

The government solved its problem – and it did it by taking away the rights of the senior debt holders to an orderly liquidation – when on the numbers given by the ultimate acquirer the senior debt was likely to be whole or near to whole.

The Government did this seemingly capriciously. It changed the order of creditors and the basis on which banks all across America raise wholesale funds.

Now there is not much raising of wholesale funds by banks at the moment. But after this deal there is likely to be less. It is simply the case that there is now a new risk for people who provide wholesale funding – and that risk is that the government will unilaterally abrogate their rights – without appeal, without due process and without accountability.

In the process the OTS and the FDIC have effectively removed the main low-cost source of funds of pretty well all banks in America. They will have put the fear-of-Government into such people globally. This is the opposite of moral hazard. In the Moral hazard case people take too many risks because they believe the government will reimburse their losses. But in this case people are going to take too few risks because they know that government might unilaterally remove their rights and property.

This was – by far – the least justified government action of this credit cycle. And it spells doom for any bank in America that is ultimately reliant senior (and hence well protected) but unsecured financing because it is so capricious.

Those banks are many – but we can start with Wachovia whose destiny (failure) is now nearly certain – and for whom the precedent is set. But after that we can go for all the banks including the champions such as Bank of America and Citigroup. Creditors now face confiscation of their rights by the US Government without oversight or audit or even process.

At that point there is no creditors and the economy collapses. The trust needed to make capitalism worked has been removed. I am not a conservative - but I will argue - along with many conservatives - that the most important function of government in a capitalist society is provision of a framework by which property rights can be defined and enforced as this is the key to making a capitalist society function. The Government is now acting as if the framework does not apply to them. That is bad whatever your political persuasion.

What next

The FDIC and OTS have won the battle with respect to WaMu. They got rid of WaMu without any cost to the taxpayer. The WSJ lauded that achievement. They really did get out of their WaMu risk quite neatly – and I will be the heads of those organisations went to bed feeling pretty pleased with themselves.

But in the process they have doomed about two thirds of the US banking system.

I am still a believer that government – whilst not stuck with great incentives will grope for right solutions. But that belief of this former (competent) public servant is being shaken to the core.

And whilst Wachovia and dozens of others will eventually hit the wall because of this decision, the Government will work out that it has a bad process before Bank of America fails.

But I think it is time that the process is short circuited. The heads of the OTS (John Reich) and of the FDIC (Sheila Bair) should be sacked now and for cause. Mr Paulson better get control of this process and let it be known that the US has a process for dealing with senior creditors and making sure that their rights are honoured.

Otherwise heaven help us.

    Posted by on Saturday, September 27, 2008 at 12:15 PM in Economics, Financial System, Market Failure | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (33)

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