Sunday, September 21, 2008

Financial Crisis, America and Ideology

In a diversion from my normal topics, the US financial crisis has my attention at the moment.

First context... a bunch of financial institutions got greedy and bought a bunch of assets (mostly mortgage-backed securities) that no one wants to buy. Since no one wants to buy this stuff and no one can figure out how much they are worth, the government is going to spend up to $700B to buy this stuff.

So the financial institutions made decisions that should make them bankrupt, the government doesn't want them to go bankrupt and here is where it gets interesting.

If I'm a corporation and one of my rivals is going bankrupt, I don't buy the assets that made them bankrupt... I buy a stake in the company. This is what the government did with AIG... they bought 80% of the company (actually slightly less because 80% is a magic number in corporate land).

If, in the future that company does well, my stake in the company goes up and I potentially get a big financial benefit.

Now, instead of this Schumpeter-ian creative destruction, the government is going to buy all the bad assets. This is the key issue... the owners of the firms that made bad decisions get a free pass-- they are not dilluted by government ownership.... which is pretty much the only punishment capitalists understand.

Now, in the ideal world, the government would actually take a stake + buy the bad assets off the balance sheet, since both actions are necessary... buying the bad assets to resolve the crisis and taking a stake to punish the owners of these firms/

(oh wait, I don't want to punish main street since that might cause shareholder activism that might crimp those multi-million dollar executive pay packages)

I suspect if any of the rich people that understand investment and such actually paid any significant taxes, they would be hollaring for the government to use *their* money wisely by buying the assets only on the condition of getting an equity stake.

But since the money comes from a bunch of middle income folks that don't really realize they are partially responsible for this mess by holding Bear Sterns in their retirement portfolios, its OK to just buy the bad assets.

And this is where the ideology comes in. God Forbid the taxpayers own a significant percentage of the financial system they are bailing out. That would be socialism and that would be bad-- not that we know what socialism really is, not that the government acting like an astute investor is good.... since capitalism is only good if you are a private citizen or corporation.

And tying this up into a nice little bow... this just shows the contempt that Americans have for government. Carly Fiorina says that the a person qualified to be president of the United States... in charge of an organization with revenues of $2.5 trillion and 1.7 million employees.... isn't qualified to run Hewlett Packard ($113B revenue and 172K employees).

We say our government isn't qualified to own equity stakes in our financial companies.

We'll probably unload all those bad assets to early to make a decent profit (like we did with the Resolution Trust Corporation) becuase of the contempt Americans havce for their own government.

Its my money darn it, I want it invested well. I want a government that is run well, and just like when my airline does a crappy job, I'm going to switch vendors.

Wait we have an election in a few weeks.... mmmm.