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Posts Tagged ‘Bailouts’

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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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 President wants us to believe that the recent IPO for General Motors was a smashing success. And it was…if you believe that it’s a good idea to lose money (the direct cost of the bailout) and make the economy less efficient by misallocating resources (the indirect cost of the bailout). The always superb John Lott has a good explanation at Foxnews.com, and here is an excerpt.

Only the government would consider it a success to buy stock at $43.84 a share and sell it at $33. — But President Obama and those who supported his bailout of General Motors and Chrysler are claiming just that…  It simply doesn’t account for the over $50 billion in direct bailout funds and the tens of billions of dollars in other breaks President Obama gave the company and its unions. It also ignores that GM’s stockholders and particularly its bondholders had their wealth stolen from them when the government took over ownership of the company. Traditional property right protections were shredded by the Obama administration, making corporate investments in America riskier as a result.

By the way, Mickey Kaus is surprised that investors were willing to buy GM shares, but he hypothesizes that they were fools or that they expect GM to hollow out its American operations and build cars in China.

Either way, not a good way to squander the tax dollars of the American people. Another legacy of Bush-Obama statism. Way to go, guys!

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Ireland is in deep fiscal trouble and the Germans and the French apparently want the politicians in Dublin to increase the nation’s 12.5 percent corporate tax rate as the price for being bailed out. This is almost certainly the cause of considerable smugness and joy in Europe’s high-tax nations, many of which have been very resentful of Ireland for enjoying so much prosperity in recent decades in part because of a low corporate tax burden.

But is there any reason to think Ireland’s competitive corporate tax regime is responsible for the nation’s economic crisis? The answer, not surprisingly, is no. Here’s a chart from one of Ireland’s top economists, looking at taxes and spending for past 27 years. You can see that revenues grew rapidly, especially beginning in the 1990s as the lower tax rates were implemented. The problem is that politicians spent every penny of this revenue windfall.

When the financial crisis hit a couple of years ago, tax revenues suddenly plummeted. Unfortunately, politicians continued to spend like drunken sailors. It’s only in the last year that they finally stepped on the brakes and began to rein in the burden of government spending. But that may be a case of too little, too late.

The second chart provides additional detail. Interestingly, the burden of government spending actually fell as a share of GDP between 1983 and 2000. This is not because government spending was falling, but rather 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.

But big government is never a free lunch. Government spending diverts resources from the productive sector of the economy. This is now painfully apparent since there no longer is a revenue windfall to mask the damage.

There are lots of lessons to learn from Ireland’s fiscal/economic/financial crisis. There was too much government spending. Ireland also had a major housing bubble. And some people say that adopting the euro (the common currency of many European nations) helped create the current mess.

The one thing we can definitely say, though, is that lower tax rates did not cause Ireland’s problems. It’s also safe to say that higher tax rates will delay Ireland’s recovery. French and German politicians may think that’s a good idea, but hopefully Irish lawmakers have a better perspective.

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I’m an economist, so I should probably be most agitated about the economic consequences of TARP, such as moral hazard and capital malinvestment. But when I read stories about how political insiders (both in government and on Wall Street) manipulate the system for personal advantage, I want to go postal.

Yes, TARP was economically misguided. But the bailout also was fundamentally corrupt (as are so many things when government gets too big). And it was a form of corruption that lined the pockets of the ruling class. I don’t like it when lower-income people use the political system to take money from upper-income people, but I get completely nauseated/angry/disgusted when upper-income people use the coercive power of government to steal money from lower-income people.

Now, to add insult to injury, we’re being fed an unsavory gruel of lies and deception as the political class tries to cover up its sleazy behavior. Here’s a story from Bloomberg about the Treasury Department’s refusal to obey the law and comply with a FOIA request. A Bloomberg reporter wanted to know about an insider deal to put taxpayers on the line to guarantee a bunch of Citigroup-held securities, but the government thinks that people don’t have a right to know how their money is being funneled to politically-powerful and well-connected insiders.

The late Bloomberg News reporter Mark Pittman asked the U.S. Treasury in January 2009 to identify $301 billion of securities owned by Citigroup Inc. that the government had agreed to guarantee. He made the request on the grounds that taxpayers ought to know how their money was being used. More than 20 months later, after saying at least five times that a response was imminent, Treasury officials responded with 560 pages of printed-out e-mails — none of which Pittman requested. They were so heavily redacted that most of what’s left are everyday messages such as “Did you just try to call me?” and “Monday will be a busy day!” None of the documents answers Pittman’s request for “records sufficient to show the names of the relevant securities” or the dates and terms of the guarantees.

Here’s another reprehensible example of sleazy behavior. The Treasury Department, for all intents and purposes, lied when it recently claimed that the AIG bailout would cost “only” $5 billion. This has triggered some pushback from Capitol Hill GOPers, as reported by the New York Times, but it is highly unlikely that anyone will suffer any consequences for this deception. To paraphrase Glenn Reynolds, “laws, honesty, and integrity, like taxes, are for the little people.”

The United States Treasury concealed $40 billion in likely taxpayer losses on the bailout of the American International Group earlier this month, when it abandoned its usual method for valuing investments, according to a report by the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. …“The American people have a right for full and complete disclosure about their investment in A.I.G.,” Mr. Barofsky said, “and the U.S. government has an obligation, when they’re describing potential losses, to give complete information.” …“If a private company filed information with the government that was just as misleading and disingenuous as what Treasury has done here, you’d better believe there would be calls for an investigation from the S.E.C. and others,” said Representative Darrell Issa, the senior Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He called the Treasury’s October report on A.I.G. “blatant manipulation.” Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, said he thought “administration officials are trying so hard to put a positive spin on program losses that they played fast and loose with the numbers.” He said it reminded him of “misleading” claims that General Motors had paid back its rescue loans with interest ahead of schedule.

P.S. Allow me to preempt some emails from people who will argue that TARP was a necessary evil. Even for those who think the financial system had to be recapitalized, there was no need to bail out specific companies. The government could have taken the approach used during the S&L bailout about 20 years ago, which was to shut down the insolvent institutions. Depositors were bailed out, often by using taxpayer money to bribe a solvent institution to take over the failed savings & loan, but management and shareholders were wiped out, thus  preventing at least one form of moral hazard.

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In the “Five Things About Me” section of my blog, I included this blurb:

A left-wing newspaper in the U.K. wrote that I’m “a high priest of light tax, small state libertarianism.” I assume they meant it as an insult, but it’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about me.

I now have something new to add to that list. In their new book, Give Us Liberty, Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe noted that I was one of the few people in Washington who was against TARP from the beginning. I’m proud that I never wavered in my support for small government and free markets, and I’m proud to work at the Cato Institute, where there is never pressure to do the wrong thing merely to appease Republicans. So this passage from their book partially offsets the horror of yesterday’s football game.

The day after Paulson released his sweeping plan, FreedomWorks quickly connected with other free market groups to assess their willingness to fight. It was a surprisingly small group. But a principled few stepped up, notably Andrew Moylan of the National Taxpayers Union. The Club for Growth and the Competitive Enterprise Institute also weighed in, and Dan Mitchell at Cato and the folks at Reason.com offered much needed policy support. The groups joined forces with a few free market Capitol Hill staffers who were also feeling remarkably isolated in their efforts to stop the massive government bailout.

For those who are not familiar with the debate, the TARP bailout was a failure, both in terms of what it did and what it didn’t do. Regarding the former, TARP gave blank-check authority to the Treasury Department, resulting in an unsavory combination of sordid special-interest handouts and economically-destructive misallocation of capital. The politicians and Wall Street moochers said TARP was necessary to recapitalize the financial system, but that easily could have been accomplished by doing something similar to what happened during the S&L crisis 20 years ago – shutting down insolvent firms and compensating (if necessary) creditors, depositors, and other retail customers. The real tragedy, however, is that politicians failed to fix the policies that caused the crisis – the corrupt system of housing subsidies from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the reckless easy-money policy of the Federal Reserve. The lesson we should learn is that government intervention and subsidies have very high costs.

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