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Archive for the ‘Bailouts’ Category

On rare occasions, I dream about being a politician or high-level international bureaucrat. Not because I want to be a moocher (please put me out of my misery if that ever happens), but because I periodically read about some sleazy interest group making petulant demands for handouts and I think about how much fun it would be to tell them to go jump in a lake.

In some cases, the sleazy interest group is an entire nation. Greece recently took a bailout from both the European Union (i.e., European taxpayers) and the International Monetary Fund (i.e., all taxpayers). In exchange for getting a handout, Greek politicians agreed to implement a bunch of deficit-reduction policies.

But like many welfare recipients, the country of Greece has an entitlement mentality and is now whining and complaining about having to live up to its side of the bargain.

All I can think about is how rewarding and satisfying it would be to say, “okay, a__h___s, have it your way, we’re revoking your bailout. Have fun becoming Argentina on your way to becoming Zimbabwe, you bloodsucking leeches.”

Actually, if I had that power, Greece never would have received a bailout in the first place, but I think you know what I mean.

Here are some excerpts from the Reuters report about Greece’s chutzpah.

Greece accused the EU and IMF of interfering in its domestic affairs on Saturday after the international lenders said Athens must speed up reforms and sell more public assets. On Friday, EU and IMF inspectors visiting Greece to monitor the implementation of a bailout plan that saved Greece from bankruptcy, approved more aid for the country but adopted a more critical tone than on previous visits. In rare harsh words, the Greek government said the inspectors’ approach was unacceptable, after coming under fire from local media for not reacting to criticism of the pace of reforms and the call for privatizations. …Earlier in the day, government spokesman George Petalotis said: “We asked nobody to interfere in domestic affairs … We only take orders from the Greek people.”

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I’ve always rejected coercive redistribution, particularly when imposed by the federal government.

But some types of redistribution are worse than others, and when big business and big government get in bed together, ordinary people are the ones who get screwed.

This is why Obama’s supposed “move to the center” is a bunch of nonsense.

Tim Carney is the go-to guy on this issue, and his column this morning in the Washington Examiner exposes the real meaning of Obama’s recent appointments of a “banker” and a “CEO.”

Let’s start with Bill Daley, the supposed banker who will be Obama’s new Chief of Staff. Does this signal a move to the right, as some left-wingers fear? That might be the case if Obama had appointed a real banker like John Allison of BB&T, who wants government to get out of the way and believes banks should sink or swim without bailouts or subsidies. But, as Tim explains, that is not the attitude of Bill Daley, who is more akin to Jim Taggart, the rent-seeking businessman in Atlas Shrugged.

Check out Daley’s resume. In the 1990s, he ran Amalgamated Bank, owned by a union and described by the Chicago Sun-Times as “one of the city’s most politically connected financial institutions.” Bill’s brother, Mayor Richard Daley, kept the city’s money on deposit at Amalgamated. Later, Bill held a seat on Fannie Mae’s board, pocketing six-figure compensation from the government-sponsored enterprise that used a housing bubble and an implicit government guarantee to fill a slush fund for well-connected Democrats — until taxpayers bailed it out in 2008. This is Obama’s kind of businessman: a banker who leverages his political connections for profit.

Or what about Obama’s appointment of Jeff Immelt of General Electric? Does this mean Obama wants to unleash the power of free enterprise? That would be welcome news, but GE has morphed into a corrupt company that specializes in fleecing taxpayers (a very sad development since GE once sponsored Ronald Reagan). Once again, Tim hits the nail on the head with a devastating indictment.

GE, which marches in sync with government, pocketing subsidies, profiting from regulation, and lobbying for more of both. …Obama bragged GE would be selling to a power plant in Samalkot, India. That sale is no triumph of free trade — Obama’s Export-Import Bank is providing at least $400 million in subsidized financing to grease the skids. Subsidies are GE’s lifeblood, and Immelt’s own words make that clear. In his op-ed announcing his appointment, Immelt called for a “coordinated commitment among business, labor and government…” He also advocated “partnership between business and government…” This is Immelt’s style. …wherever Obama has led, GE has followed. Obama has championed cap and trade in greenhouse gasses, and GE has started a business dedicated to creating and trading greenhouse gas credits. As Obama expanded subsidies on embryonic stem cells, GE opened an embryonic stem-cell business. Obama pushed rail subsidies, and GE hired Linda Daschle — wife of Obama confidant Tom Daschle — as a rail lobbyist. GE, with its windmills, its high-tech batteries, its health care equipment, and its smart meters, was the biggest beneficiary of Obama’s stimulus. To get these gears in sync isn’t cheap: The company has spent $65.7 million on lobbying during the Obama administration — more than any other company by far. So much for Obama’s war on lobbyists.

In other words, appointing Daley and Immelt does not mean a change in policy. These are people who want a bigger government because these are people who have learned to line their pockets when government has more power. They may have different motives than traditional leftists, but the result is the same. As I’ve noted before, my former Cato colleague Will Wilkinson said it best when he wrote that, “…the more power the government has to pick winners and losers, the more power rich people will have relative to poor people.”

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The news is going from bad to worse for Ireland. The Irish Independent is reporting that the Swiss Central Bank no longer will accept Irish government bonds as collateral. The story also notes that one of the world’s largest bond firms, PIMCO, is no longer purchasing debt issued by the Irish government.

And this is happening even though (or perhaps because?) Ireland received a big bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (and the IMF’s involvement means American taxpayers are picking up part of the tab).

I’ve already commented on Ireland’s woes, and opined about similar problems afflicting the rest of Europe, but the continuing deterioration of the Emerald Isle deserves further analysis so that American policy makers hopefully grasp the right lessons. Here are five things we should learn from the mess in Ireland.

1. Bailouts Don’t Work – When Ireland’s government rescued depositors by bailing out the nation’s three big banks, they made a big mistake by also bailing out creditors such as bondholders. This dramatically increased the cost of the bank bailout and exacerbated moral hazard since investors are more willing to make inefficient and risky choices if they think governments will cover their losses. And because it required the government to incur a lot of additional debt, it also had the effect of destabilizing the nation’s finances, which then resulted in a second mistake – the bailout of Ireland by the European Union and IMF (a classic case of Mitchell’s Law, which occurs when one bad government policy leads to another bad government policy).

American policy makers already have implemented one of the two mistakes mentioned above. The TARP bailout went way beyond protecting depositors and instead gave unnecessary handouts to wealthy and sophisticated companies, executives, and investors. But something good may happen if we learn from the second mistake. Greedy politicians from states such as California and Illinois would welcome a bailout from Uncle Sam, but this would be just as misguided as the EU/IMF bailout of Ireland. The Obama Administration already provided an indirect short-run bailout as part of the so-called stimulus legislation, and this encouraged states to dig themselves deeper in a fiscal hole. Uncle Sam shouldn’t be subsidizing bad policy at the state level, and the mess in Europe is a powerful argument that this counterproductive approach should be stopped as soon as possible.

By the way, it’s worth noting that politicians and international bureaucracies behave as if government defaults would have catastrophic consequences, but Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute explains that there have been more than 200 sovereign defaults in the past 200 years and we somehow avoided Armageddon.

2. Excessive Government Spending Is a Path to Fiscal Ruin – The bailout of the banks obviously played a big role in causing Ireland’s fiscal collapse, but the government probably could have weathered that storm if politicians in Dublin hadn’t engaged in a 20-year spending spree.

The red line in the chart shows the explosive growth of government spending. Irish politicians got away with this behavior for a long time. Indeed, government spending as a share of GDP (the blue line) actually fell during the 1990s because the private sector was growing even faster than the public sector. This bit of good news (at least relatively speaking) stopped about 10 years ago. Politicians began to increase government spending at roughly the same rate as the private sector was expanding. While this was misguided, tax revenues were booming (in part because of genuine growth and in part because of the bubble) and it seemed like bigger government was a free lunch.

Eventually, however, the house of cards collapsed. Revenues dried up and the banks failed, but because the politicians had spent so much during the good times, there was no reserve during the bad times.

American politicians are repeating these mistakes. Spending has skyrocketed during the Bush-Obama year. We also had our version of a financial system bailout, though fortunately not as large as Ireland’s when measured as a share of economic output, so our crisis is likely to occur when the baby boom generation has retired and the time comes to make good on the empty promises to fund Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

3. Low Corporate Tax Rates Are Good, but They Don’t Guarantee Economic Success if other Policies Are Bad – Ireland used to be a success story. They went from being the “Sick Man of Europe” in the early 1980s to being the “Celtic Tiger” earlier this century in large part because policy makers dramatically reformed fiscal policy. Government spending was capped in the late 1980 and tax rates were reduced during the 1990s. The reform of the corporate income tax was especially dramatic. Irish lawmakers reduced the tax rate from 50 percent all the way down to 12.5 percent.

This policy was enormously successful in attracting new investment, and Ireland’s government actually wound up collecting more corporate tax revenue at the lower rate. This was remarkable since it is only in very rare cases that the Laffer Curve means a tax cut generates more revenue for government (in the vast majority of cases, the Laffer Curve simply means that changes in taxable income will have revenue effects that offset only a portion of the revenue effects caused by the change in tax rates).

Unfortunately, good corporate tax policy does not guarantee good economic performance if the government is making a lot of mistakes in other areas. This is an apt description of what happened to Ireland. The silver lining to this sad story is that Irish politicians have resisted pressure from France and Germany and are keeping the corporate tax rate at 12.5 percent. The lesson for American policy makers, of course, is that low corporate tax rates are a very good idea, but don’t assume they protect the economy from other policy mistakes.

4. Artificially Low Interest Rates Encourage Bubbles – No discussion of Ireland’s economic problems would be complete without looking at the decision to join the common European currency. Adopting the euro had some advantages, such as not having to worry about changing money when traveling to many other European nations. But being part of Europe’s monetary union also meant that Ireland did not have flexible interest rates.

Normally, an economic boom drives up interest rates because the plethora of profitable opportunities leads investors demand more credit. But Ireland’s interest rates, for all intents and purposes, were governed by what was happening elsewhere in Europe, where growth was generally anemic. The resulting artificially low interest rates in Ireland helped cause a bubble, much as artificially low interest rates in America last decade led to a bubble.

But if America already had a bubble, what lesson can we learn from Ireland? The simple answer is that we should learn to avoid making the same mistake over and over again. Easy money is a recipe for inflation and/or bubbles. Simply stated, excess money has to go someplace and the long-run results are never pleasant. Yet Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve have launched QE2, a policy explicitly designed to lower interest rates in hopes of artificially juicing the economy.

5. Housing Subsidies Reduce Prosperity – Last but not least, Ireland’s bubble was worsened in part because politicians created an extensive system of preferences that tilted the playing field in the direction of real estate. The combination of these subsidies and the artificially low interest rates caused widespread malinvestment and Ireland is paying the price today.

Since we just endured a financial crisis caused in large part by a corrupt system of housing subsidies for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, American policy makers should have learned this lesson already. But as Thomas Sowell sagely observes, politicians are still fixated on somehow re-inflating the housing bubble. The lesson they should have learned is that markets should determine value, not politics.

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The International Monetary Fund is a great place to work – at least for those who don’t feel guilty about getting extravagant salaries from taxpayers. And what do IMF bureaucrats do for the money we pay them (American taxpayers finance the biggest share of the bureaucracy’s expenses)?

Many of them jet around the world in business class, stay at first-class hotels, and tell nations to raise taxes and devalue their currencies. And to add insult to injury, they specialize in misallocating global saving and investment by bailing out irresponsible nations.

This is not to say the bureaucrats are always wrong. While the IMF often is bad on taxes and monetary policy, the bureaucrats sometimes give good advice on trade, regulation, and government spending.

But even when they give good advice, that doesn’t justify their big salaries (which are tax-free, by the way). The real question, though, is whether the IMF should even exist – especially when the bureaucracy more often than not is on the wrong side of key public policy issues.

Unfortunately, instead of being cut back or phased out, the IMF is getting even bigger. While the rest of us are having to tighten our belts, the bureaucrats at the IMF are having fun spending our money. The gold-plated international bureaucracy now wants to spend big bucks to upgrade it already lavish headquarters in Washington. Here’s a blurb from the UK-based Guardian.

…the International Monetary Fund’s bureaucrats plan to concentrate on a matter closer to home in the new year – sprucing up their offices in downtown Washington DC. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the fund’s managing director, quietly announced last week that he would be asking permission from the organisation’s cash-strapped member states to refurbish its main headquarters building. …Pressure groups greeted the news with scepticism, pointing out that eight years ago the fund spent $150m on a second building, complete with external waterfall, after saying its original site – known as HQ1 – was no longer big enough for its staff of highly-paid international officials.They said the fund was now flush with cash after selling some of its stock of gold and extracting fees and interest payments from troubled countries such as Ireland and Greece. …Peter Chowla, programme manager at the Bretton Woods Project, a think tank that monitors the activities of the IMF and the World Bank, said: “After a nice financial crisis, the IMF’s balance sheet is looking very health – lots of interest to pour in from Greece and Ireland and commitment fees on money never even lent to Colombia, Mexico and Poland. So the fund is thinking about spending some of the proceeds on remodelling its headquarters.”

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The mid-term elections were a rejection of President Obama’s big-government agenda, but those results don’t necessarily mean better policy. We should not forget, after all, that Democrats rammed through Obamacare even after losing the special election to replace Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts (much to my dismay, my prediction from last January was correct).

Similarly, GOP control of the House of Representatives does not automatically mean less government and more freedom. Heck, it doesn’t even guarantee that things won’t continue to move in the wrong direction. Here are five possible bad policies for 2011, most of which the Obama White House can implement by using executive power.

1. A back-door bailout of the states from the Federal Reserve – The new GOP Congress presumably wouldn’t be foolish enough to bail out profligate states such as California and Illinois, but that does not mean the battle is won. Ben Bernanke already has demonstrated that he is willing to curry favor with the White House by debasing the value of the dollar, so what’s to stop him from engineering a back-door bailout by having the Federal Reserve buy state bonds? The European Central Bank already is using this tactic to bail out Europe’s welfare states, so a precedent already exists for this type of misguided policy. To make matters worse, there’s nothing Congress can do – barring legislation that Obama presumably would veto – to stop the Fed from this awful policy.

2. A front-door bailout of Europe by the United States – Welfare states in Europe are teetering on the edge of insolvency. Decades of big government have crippled economic growth and generated mountains of debt. Ireland and Greece already have been bailed out, and Portugal and Spain are probably next on the list, to be followed by countries such as Italy and Belgium. So why should American taxpayers worry about European bailouts? The unfortunate answer is that American taxpayers will pick up a big chunk of the tab if the International Monetary Fund is involved. Indeed, this horse already has escaped the barn. The United States provides the largest amount of  subsidies to the International Monetary Fund, and the IMF took part in the bailouts of Greece and Ireland. The Senate did vote against having American taxpayers take part in the bailout of Greece, but that turned out to be a symbolic exercise. Sadly, that’s probably what we can expect if and when there are bailouts of the bigger European welfare states.

3. Republicans getting duped by Obama and supporting a VAT – The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the Obama Administration is contemplating a reduction in the corporate income tax. This sounds like a great idea, particularly since America’s punitive corporate tax rate is undermining competitiveness and hindering job creation. But what happens if Obama demands that Congress approve a value-added tax to “pay for” the lower corporate tax rate? This would be a terrible deal, sort of like a football team trading a great young quarterback for a 35-year old lineman. The VAT would give statists a money machine that they need to turn the United States into a French-style welfare state. This type of national sales tax would only be acceptable if the personal and corporate income taxes were abolished – and the Constitution was amended to make sure the federal government never again could tax what we earn and produce. But that’s not the deal Obama would offer. My fingers are crossed that Obama doesn’t offer to swap a lower corporate income tax for a VAT, particularly since we already know that some Republicans are susceptible to the VAT.

4. Regulatory imposition of global warming policy – This actually is an issue we needed to start worrying about before this year. The Obama Administration already is in the process of trying to use regulatory edicts to impose Kyoto-style restrictions on energy use, and 2011 may be a pivotal year for this issue. This issue is troubling because of the potential impact on economic growth, but it also represents an assault on the rule of law since the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency are engaging in regulatory overreach because they did not have enough support to get so-called climate change legislation through Congress. The new GOP majority presumably will try to use the “power of the purse” to limit the EPA’s power grab, and the outcome of that fight could have dramatic implications for job creation and competitiveness.

5. U.N. control of the Internet – The Federal Communications Commission just engaged in an unprecedented power grab as part of its “Net Neutrality” initiative, so we already have bad news for both Internet consumers and America’s telecommunications industry. But it may get worse. The bureaucrats at the United Nations, conspiring with autocratic governments, have created an Internet Governance Forum in hopes of grabbing power over the online world. This has caused considerable angst, leading Vint Cerf, one of inventors of the Internet (sorry, Al Gore) to warn: “We don’t believe governments should be allowed to grant themselves a monopoly on Internet governance. The current bottoms-up, open approach works — protecting users from vested interests and enabling rapid innovation. Let’s fight to keep it that way.” International bureaucracies are very skilled at incrementally increasing their authority, so this won’t be a one-year fight. Stopping this power grab will require persistent oversight and a willingness to reject compromises that inevitably give bureaucracies more power and simply set the stage for further demands.

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The fiscal disintegration of Europe is bad news, though I confess to a bit of malicious glee every time I read about welfare states such as Greece, Ireland, and Portugal getting to the point where they no longer have the ability to borrow enough money to finance their bloated public sectors. This I-told-you-so attitude is not very mature on my part, but at least one hopes that American politicians will learn the right lessons.

Even though this is a big issue, I have not written much about the topic, in part because I don’t have much to add to my original post about this issue back in February. All the arguments I made then are still true, particularly about the moral hazard of bailouts and the economic damage of rewarding excessive government. So why bother repeating myself, particularly since this is an issue for Europeans to solve (or, as is their habit, to make worse)?

Unfortunately, it appears that all of us need to pay closer attention to this issue. The Obama Administration apparently thinks American taxpayers should subsidize European profligacy. Here’s a passage from a Reuters report about a potential bailout for Europe via the IMF.

The United States would be ready to support the extension of the European Financial Stability Facility via an extra commitment of money from the International Monetary Fund, a U.S. official told Reuters on Wednesday. “There are a lot of people talking about that. I think the European Commission has talked about that,” said the U.S. official, commenting on enlarging the 750 billion euro ($980 billion) EU/IMF European stability fund. “It is up to the Europeans. We will certainly support using the IMF in these circumstances.” “There are obviously some severe market problems,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “In May, it was Greece. This is Ireland and Portugal. If there is contagion that’s a huge problem for the global economy.”

This issue will be an interesting test for the GOP. I think it’s safe to say that the Tea Party movement didn’t elect Republicans so they could expand the culture of bailouts – especially if that means handouts for profligate European governments. Some people will argue that American taxpayers aren’t at risk because this would be a bailout from the IMF instead of the Treasury. But that’s an absurd and dishonest assertion. The United States is the largest “shareholder” in that international bureaucracy, and there’s no way the IMF can get more involved without American support.

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I was on Fox News last week and unloaded on the General Motors bailout.

I’m surprised I wasn’t foaming at the mouth.

My conclusion is that people with honor and integrity should refuse to buy cars from companies that stole money from taxpayers.

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