Economy May 2009

The Quiet Coup

The crash has laid bare many unpleasant truths about the United States. One of the most alarming, says a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is that the finance industry has effectively captured our government—a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises. If the IMF’s staff could speak freely about the U.S., it would tell us what it tells all countries in this situation: recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform. And if we are to prevent a true depression, we’re running out of time.
America’s Oligarchs and the Financial Crisis

The oligarchy and the government policies that aided it did not alone cause the financial crisis that exploded last year. Many other factors contributed, including excessive borrowing by households and lax lending standards out on the fringes of the financial world. But major commercial and investment banks—and the hedge funds that ran alongside them—were the big beneficiaries of the twin housing and equity-market bubbles of this decade, their profits fed by an ever-increasing volume of transactions founded on a relatively small base of actual physical assets. Each time a loan was sold, packaged, securitized, and resold, banks took their transaction fees, and the hedge funds buying those securities reaped ever-larger fees as their holdings grew.

Because everyone was getting richer, and the health of the national economy depended so heavily on growth in real estate and finance, no one in Washington had any incentive to question what was going on. Instead, Fed Chairman Greenspan and President Bush insisted metronomically that the economy was fundamentally sound and that the tremendous growth in complex securities and credit-default swaps was evidence of a healthy economy where risk was distributed safely.

In the summer of 2007, signs of strain started appearing. The boom had produced so much debt that even a small economic stumble could cause major problems, and rising delinquencies in subprime mortgages proved the stumbling block. Ever since, the financial sector and the federal government have been behaving exactly the way one would expect them to, in light of past emerging-market crises.

By now, the princes of the financial world have of course been stripped naked as leaders and strategists—at least in the eyes of most Americans. But as the months have rolled by, financial elites have continued to assume that their position as the economy’s favored children is safe, despite the wreckage they have caused.

Stanley O’Neal, the CEO of Merrill Lynch, pushed his firm heavily into the mortgage-backed-securities market at its peak in 2005 and 2006; in October 2007, he acknowledged, “The bottom line is, we—I—got it wrong by being overexposed to subprime, and we suffered as a result of impaired liquidity in that market. No one is more disappointed than I am in that result.” O’Neal took home a $14 million bonus in 2006; in 2007, he walked away from Merrill with a severance package worth $162 million, although it is presumably worth much less today.

In October, John Thain, Merrill Lynch’s final CEO, reportedly lobbied his board of directors for a bonus of $30 million or more, eventually reducing his demand to $10 million in December; he withdrew the request, under a firestorm of protest, only after it was leaked to The Wall Street Journal. Merrill Lynch as a whole was no better: it moved its bonus payments, $4 billion in total, forward to December, presumably to avoid the possibility that they would be reduced by Bank of America, which would own Merrill beginning on January 1. Wall Street paid out $18 billion in year-end bonuses last year to its New York City employees, after the government disbursed $243 billion in emergency assistance to the financial sector.

In a financial panic, the government must respond with both speed and overwhelming force. The root problem is uncertainty—in our case, uncertainty about whether the major banks have sufficient assets to cover their liabilities. Half measures combined with wishful thinking and a wait-and-see attitude cannot overcome this uncertainty. And the longer the response takes, the longer the uncertainty will stymie the flow of credit, sap consumer confidence, and cripple the economy—ultimately making the problem much harder to solve. Yet the principal characteristics of the government’s response to the financial crisis have been delay, lack of transparency, and an unwillingness to upset the financial sector.

The response so far is perhaps best described as “policy by deal”: when a major financial institution gets into trouble, the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve engineer a bailout over the weekend and announce on Monday that everything is fine. In March 2008, Bear Stearns was sold to JP Morgan Chase in what looked to many like a gift to JP Morgan. (Jamie Dimon, JP Morgan’s CEO, sits on the board of directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which, along with the Treasury Department, brokered the deal.) In September, we saw the sale of Merrill Lynch to Bank of America, the first bailout of AIG, and the takeover and immediate sale of Washington Mutual to JP Morgan—all of which were brokered by the government. In October, nine large banks were recapitalized on the same day behind closed doors in Washington. This, in turn, was followed by additional bailouts for Citigroup, AIG, Bank of America, Citigroup (again), and AIG (again).

Some of these deals may have been reasonable responses to the immediate situation. But it was never clear (and still isn’t) what combination of interests was being served, and how. Treasury and the Fed did not act according to any publicly articulated principles, but just worked out a transaction and claimed it was the best that could be done under the circumstances. This was late-night, backroom dealing, pure and simple.

Throughout the crisis, the government has taken extreme care not to upset the interests of the financial institutions, or to question the basic outlines of the system that got us here. In September 2008, Henry Paulson asked Congress for $700 billion to buy toxic assets from banks, with no strings attached and no judicial review of his purchase decisions. Many observers suspected that the purpose was to overpay for those assets and thereby take the problem off the banks’ hands—indeed, that is the only way that buying toxic assets would have helped anything. Perhaps because there was no way to make such a blatant subsidy politically acceptable, that plan was shelved.

Instead, the money was used to recapitalize banks, buying shares in them on terms that were grossly favorable to the banks themselves. As the crisis has deepened and financial institutions have needed more help, the government has gotten more and more creative in figuring out ways to provide banks with subsidies that are too complex for the general public to understand. The first AIG bailout, which was on relatively good terms for the taxpayer, was supplemented by three further bailouts whose terms were more AIG-friendly. The second Citigroup bailout and the Bank of America bailout included complex asset guarantees that provided the banks with insurance at below-market rates. The third Citigroup bailout, in late February, converted government-owned preferred stock to common stock at a price significantly higher than the market price—a subsidy that probably even most Wall Street Journal readers would miss on first reading. And the convertible preferred shares that the Treasury will buy under the new Financial Stability Plan give the conversion option (and thus the upside) to the banks, not the government.

This latest plan—which is likely to provide cheap loans to hedge funds and others so that they can buy distressed bank assets at relatively high prices—has been heavily influenced by the financial sector, and Treasury has made no secret of that. As Neel Kashkari, a senior Treasury official under both Henry Paulson and Tim Geithner (and a Goldman alum) told Congress in March, “We had received inbound unsolicited proposals from people in the private sector saying, ‘We have capital on the sidelines; we want to go after [distressed bank] assets.’” And the plan lets them do just that: “By marrying government capital—taxpayer capital—with private-sector capital and providing financing, you can enable those investors to then go after those assets at a price that makes sense for the investors and at a price that makes sense for the banks.” Kashkari didn’t mention anything about what makes sense for the third group involved: the taxpayers.

Even leaving aside fairness to taxpayers, the government’s velvet-glove approach with the banks is deeply troubling, for one simple reason: it is inadequate to change the behavior of a financial sector accustomed to doing business on its own terms, at a time when that behavior must change. As an unnamed senior bank official said to The New York Times last fall, “It doesn’t matter how much Hank Paulson gives us, no one is going to lend a nickel until the economy turns.” But there’s the rub: the economy can’t recover until the banks are healthy and willing to lend.

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