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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Who Should Pay for the Bailout?

Luigi Zingales' reaction to the financial market bailout plan, "Why Paulson is Wrong," has been getting a lot of attention and a Vox EU version of the argument appears below (my initial reactions are here). The main point is that taxpayers should not pay for the bailout.

Several points on this. First, if the government does do a bailout, the size of the bailout won't necessarily be $700 billion, and it is unlikely that it will be. The government is using the money to purchase assets. Some of those assets will appreciate, some will depreciate, and we don't know for sure what the net result will be. We could make money on the deal, we could lose money, we just don't know. But one thing is fairly certain, it's unlikely that the value of every security the government purchases will fall to zero, and that would be required for the government to lose all the money it spends (invests). See knzn on this point.

However let me be clear, even if the expected value of this deal is zero, that is, even if we expect losses and gains to cancel over time, taxpayers still need to be compensated for the risk they are taking. There is a risk that this bailout could lose hundreds of billions of dollars, and, just like in any financial transaction, the parties assuming that risk need to be compensated for it.

Second, I am not too concerned about the particular mechanism that we use to compensate taxpayers for the risk they are assuming. One way is the method below recommended by Luigi Zingales where taxpayers are bypassed altogether, but charging a higher than market interest rate on loans, entering into a formal profit sharing agreement, increasing taxes for corporation who take out a loan, all of these are ways of recovering some of the investment, a way of sharing the upside with taxpayers, and these don't exhaust the possibilities. To me, what's important is to get this rescue in place as soon as possible, to compensate taxpayers for any risk they are assuming, and to be sure that if the bailout does cost money, that the people who did nothing to cause the crisis and who did not benefit from it are insulated from paying for it. The particular mechanism for extracting payment for the bailout is less important and will likely be dictated by the politics, some solutions will be more politically viable than others.

If it was up to me, I'd get a government bailout going as soon as possible, we shouldn't rush into a bad agreement but we shouldn't waste time either, and use progressive taxation as the way to extract the payment for the rescue operation. As I look at the large corporate profits in the finance industry, and as I think about what has happened to the distribution of income since the Great Deregulation begin in the 1970s, it seems pretty clear that those at the top received most of the benefits on the upside of the boom. So it's only fair that those who had the largest share on the way up ought to pay the largest share on the way down. If this bailout costs us money, that is who should be paying for it.

But why raise taxes for everyone at the top, shouldn't the burden be limited to people in the finance industry who made out like bandits? The benefits from the housing boom weren't limited to fat cats at hedge funds and other financial entities. If you built houses, poured concrete, sold doorknobs, had a roofing company, etc., you benefited from the housing boom. And there are secondary effects too. During a boom more cars are sold, people eat out at restaurants more, they buy more TVs, go on more expensive vacations, all sorts of business did better because of the boom, and hence, so did the business owners (the benefits probably weren't distributed equally at the top, but even if you were, say, a major league baseball player, if attendance was higher, if you starred in more car commercials and so on because of the booming economy, then you shared in the profits from the euphoria).

But not everyone did better. Workers, in real terms, did not get a share of the profits from the boom, their wages stagnated over this time period. So why should they pay for the bailout? This is nothing more than The Little Red Hen run backwards, they ate the bread first and now the hen is asking "Who will help me pay for the bread?" It shouldn't be those who weren't allowed to sit at the table.

So I would increase taxes progressively, and I would do it in proportion to the changes in the distribution of income over this time period.

I understand that this may not be the best solution politically, taxation is a hard sell, and so is the argument that the benefits from the boom were general rather than confined to the finance industry. But if it was up to me, I would do a government bailout as soon as possible, and raise taxes progressively to compensate taxpayers for risk and to cover any losses. But in the end, I will be happy with any solution that insulates taxpayers in the middle and lower income classes from sharing in the burden of the bailout, a solution that places the costs directly on those who benefited most from the housing bubble.

Update: Comments are not pleased with this post, so let me potentially dig the hole a little deeper by trying the argument from another perspective:

Another way to think about the progressive tax approach is that it internalizes all of the costs. If there are indirect benefits from a boom, then those people who get the indirect benefits have an incentive to encourage a boom - it helps them while it's on, but they can argue it's not really their doing, so why should they be penalized for the clean up? They at least have an incentive to look the other way, to not get involved in stopping whatever behavior leads to booms. Why should they? While it's on, they do better, when it's over, the cost of the bailout falls elsewhere (assuming it's not a big crash that eventually leaves them worse off on net).

We want this to be internalized - we don't want people indirectly supporting a boom, we want them to say hey, stop that, if it continues it's going to cost me money.

Update: Before getting to Luigi Zingales' argument, let me insert this from Paul Krugman:

Thinking the bailout through, Paul Krugman: What is this bailout supposed to do? Will it actually serve the purpose? What should we be doing instead? Let’s talk.

First, a capsule analysis of the crisis.

1. It all starts with the bursting of the housing bubble. This has led to sharply increased rates of default and foreclosure, which has led to large losses on mortgage-backed securities.

2. The losses in MBS, in turn, have left the financial system undercapitalized — doubly so, because levels of leverage that were previously considered acceptable are no longer OK.

3. The financial system, in its efforts to deleverage, is contracting credit, placing everyone who depends on credit under strain.

4. There’s also, to some extent, a vicious circle of deleveraging: as financial firms try to contract their balance sheets, they drive down the prices of assets, further reducing capital and forcing more deleveraging.

So where in this process does the Temporary Asset Relief Plan offer any, well, relief? The answer is that it possibly offers some respite in stage 4: the Treasury steps in to buy assets that the financial system is trying to sell, thereby hopefully mitigating the downward spiral of asset prices.

But the more I think about this, the more skeptical I get about the extent to which it’s a solution. Problems:

(a) Although the problem starts with mortgage-backed securities, the range of assets whose prices are being driven down by deleveraging is much broader than MBS. So this only cuts off, at most, part of the vicious circle.

(b) Anyway, the vicious circle aspect is only part of the larger problem, and arguably not the most important part. Even without panic asset selling, the financial system would be seriously undercapitalized, causing a credit crunch — and this plan does nothing to address that.

Or I should say, the plan does nothing to address the lack of capital unless the Treasury overpays for assets. And if that’s the real plan, Congress has every right to balk.

So what should be done? Well, let’s think about how, until Paulson hit the panic button, the private sector was supposed to work this out: financial firms were supposed to recapitalize, bringing in outside investors to bulk up their capital base. That is, the private sector was supposed to cut off the problem at stage 2.

It now appears that isn’t happening, and public intervention is needed. But in that case, shouldn’t the public intervention also be at stage 2 — that is, shouldn’t it take the form of public injections of capital, in return for a stake in the upside?

Let’s not be railroaded into accepting an enormously expensive plan that doesn’t seem to address the real problem.

Here's the argument from Luigi Zingales:

Why Paulson is Wrong, by Luigi Zingales, Vox EU: When a profitable company is hit by a very large liability, as was the case in 1985 when Texaco lost a $12 billion court case against Pennzoil, the solution is not to have the government buy its assets at inflated prices – the solution is Chapter 11. In Chapter 11, companies with a solid underlying business generally swap debt for equity. The old equity holders are wiped out and the old debt claims are transformed into equity claims in the new entity which continues operating with a new capital structure. Alternatively, the debt holders can agree to trim the face value of debt in exchange for some warrants.

Even before Chapter 11, these procedures were the solutions adopted to deal with the large railroad bankruptcies at the turn of the twentieth century. So why is this well-established approach not used to solve the financial sectors current problems? 

No time for bankruptcy procedures

The obvious answer is that we do not have time.

Chapter 11 procedures are generally long and complex, and the crisis has reached a point where time is of the essence. The negotiations would take months and we do not have this luxury. However, we are in extraordinary times and the government has taken and is prepared to take unprecedented measures. As if rescuing AIG and prohibiting all short-selling of financial stocks was not enough, now Treasury Secretary Paulson proposes a sort of Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC) that will buy out (with taxpayers’ money) the distressed assets of the financial sector.

But at what price?

If banks and financial institutions find it difficult to recapitalize (i.e., issue new equity) it is because the private sector is uncertain about the value of the assets they have in their portfolio and does not want to overpay.

Would the government be better in valuing those assets?  No. In a negotiation between a government official and banker with a bonus at risk, who will have more clout in determining the price?

The Paulson RTC will buy toxic assets at inflated prices thereby creating a charitable institution that provides welfare to the rich – at the taxpayers’ expense. If this subsidy is large enough, it will succeed in stopping the crisis.

But, again, at what price?

The answer: billions of dollars in taxpayer money and, even worse, the violation of the fundamental capitalist principle that she who reaps the gains also bears the losses. Remember that in the Savings and Loan crisis, the government had to bail out those institutions because the deposits were federally insured. But in this case the government does not have do bail out the debtholders of Bear Sterns, AIG, or any of the other financial institutions that will benefit from the Paulson RTC.

A alternative to Paulson’s RTC

Since we do not have time for a Chapter 11 and we do not want to bail out all the creditors, the lesser evil is to do what judges do in contentious and overextended bankruptcy processes. They force a restructuring plan on creditors, where part of the debt is forgiven in exchange for some equity or some warrants. And there is a precedent for such a bold move.

During the Great Depression, many debt contracts were indexed to gold. So when the dollar convertibility into gold was suspended, the value of that debt soared, threatening the survival of many institutions. The Roosevelt Administration declared the clause invalid, de facto forcing debt forgiveness. Furthermore, the Supreme Court maintained this decision.

My colleague and current Fed Governor Randall Koszner studied this episode and showed that not only stock prices but bond prices as well soared after the Supreme Court upheld the decision. How is that possible? As corporate finance experts have been saying for the last thirty years, there are real costs from having too much debt and too little equity in the capital structure, and a reduction in the face value of debt can benefit not only the equity holders, but also the debt holders.

If debt forgiveness benefits both equity and debt holders, why do debt holders not voluntarily agree to it?

· First of all, there is a coordination problem.

Even if each individual debtholder benefits from a reduction in the face value of debt, she will benefit even more if everybody else cuts the face value of their debt and she does not. Hence, everybody waits for the other to move first, creating obvious delay.

· Secondly, from a debt holder point of view, a government bail-out is better.

Thus, any talk of a government bail-out reduces the debt-holders’ incentives to act, making the government bail-out more necessary. 

As during the Great Depression and in many debt restructurings, it makes sense in the current contingency to mandate a partial debt forgiveness or a debt-for-equity swap in the financial sector. It has the benefit of being a well-tested strategy in the private sector and it leaves the taxpayers out of the picture.

But if it is so simple, why no expert has mentioned it?

Taxing the many to benefits the few

The major players in the financial sector do not like it. It is much more appealing for the financial industry to be bailed out at taxpayers’ expense than to bear their share of pain. Forcing a debt-for-equity swap or a debt-forgiveness would be no greater a violation of private property rights than a massive bailout, but it faces much stronger political opposition. The appeal of the Paulson solution is that it taxes the many and benefits the few. Since the many (we, the taxpayers) are dispersed, we cannot put up a good fight in Capitol Hill. The financial industry is well represented at all the levels. It is enough to say that for 6 of the last 13 years, the Secretary of Treasury was a Goldman Sachs alumnus. But, as financial experts, this silence is also our responsibility. Just as it is difficult to find a doctor willing to testify against another doctor in a malpractice suit, no matter how egregious the case, finance experts in both political parties are too friendly to the industry they study and work in. 

Profits are private but losses are socialized?

The decisions that will be made this weekend matter not just to the prospects of the US economy in the year to come. They will shape the type of capitalism we will live in for the next fifty years. Do we want to live in a system where profits are private, but losses are socialized? Where taxpayer money is used to prop up failed firms? Or do we want to live in a system where people are held responsible for their decisions, where imprudent behavior is penalized and prudent behavior rewarded?

For somebody like me who believes strongly in the free market system, the most serious risk of the current situation is that the interest of few financiers will undermine the fundamental workings of the capitalist system. The time has come to save capitalism from the capitalists.

    Posted by on Sunday, September 21, 2008 at 11:52 AM in Economics, Financial System, Housing, Policy | Permalink  TrackBack (1)  Comments (71)

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