Tuesday, April 28, 2009

We Need A Root-And-Branch Reorganization Of The Financial System

Some people are open to the government handing over trillions of dollars to the banks, but no taxpayers want the money handed over without proper controls in place that will ensure it goes to good use. This has been one of the biggest issues the public has had with the bailout efforts thus far. For that reason Steve Waldman is calling for a root-and-branch reorganization of the financial system. For more on this, read the following blog post from Mark Thoma.

Steve Waldman says "we need a root-and-branch reorganization of the financial system":

Value for value, Steve Waldman: Would it have been better if Timothy Geithner had had the power to guarantee all bank debt early on? As James Surowiecki reminds us, that was part of the Swedish solution. Justin Fox plausibly suggests that we might have avoided a lot of pain with a fast, full guarantee.

But that's not the point. The question isn't whether we could have avoided this crisis, if only we had cut a big check. We could have, and that was not lost to any of us debating these issues more than a year ago. (See e.g. me or Mark Thoma.) Had we done so, the near-to-medium term fiscal costs might have been less than they probably will be now. So, with 20/20 hindsight, would it have been a good idea?

How you answer that question depends upon how you view the crisis. Is it an aberration, a shock to a basically sound financial system, or is it a painful symptom of an even more dangerous condition? ...

If you think that our financial system just needs some tweaks, some consolidation of regulators' organizational charts and sterner supervision, then you should prefer that we had just cut a check, passed Sarbanes/Oxley Book II, and moved on. But that is not what I, or most proponents of temporary receivership for insolvent banks, believe.

If you believe, as I do, that we need a root-and-branch reorganization of the financial system, which must necessarily involve the dismemberment and intrusive restraint of deeply entrenched institutions, does that mean pain is the only way forward, "the worse the better" in the old revolutionary cliché? It need not mean that. But it does mean that palliative measures, like giving the banks money, would have to be attached to curative measures, like enacting capital requirements and imposing regulatory burdens that would force financial behemoths to break themselves up or become boring narrow banks. For almost two years, policymakers at the Fed and the Treasury, including Secretary Geithner, have offered bail-out after bail-out and asked for nothing serious in return.

Do I regret that Henry Paulson was not empowered to issue a blanket guarantee of bank assets early on, as the Swedes did? No, I don't regret that at all. Why not? Because I think that "Hank the Tank" was a crappy negotiator... He would have offered the financial system sugar without requiring it to make the medicine go down. He may believe, quite sincerely, that a cure would be worse than the disease. He may believe that, but he is wrong. ...

You may believe that we have learned our lesson, that if we can just get some stability and comfort for a while we are prepared to do what must be done. That's a respectable position. But I don't share it, and neither do the majority of Americans who are unwilling to allow their representatives to sign off on any more expensive aspirin. We want value for value, an ironclad commitment of root and branch reform in exchange for the unimaginable sums of money we are being asked to hand over. ... Congress would, because the public would, support large, explicit transfers, if they were attached to reforms sufficiently radical to prevent a recurrence, and suitably punitive towards the people who managed the system that brought us here. Value for value. ...

I ... would be willing to hold my nose and tolerate a Swedish-style guarantee of bank creditors. I'd acquiesce to that even without formal nationalization. Nationalization is ... a means to an end, and the desired end is a world in which too big to fail is too big to exist for any financial institution that originates or holds credit risk in any form. Secretary Geithner could send a bill to Congress today that would put all banks with a balance sheet of over $50B into run-off mode... I'd fax my Congressman and support a $2T on-budget buyout of bank creditors as part of that bill, as long as it had teeth. ("Teeth" would imply making sure that off-balance-sheet and derivative exposures were included in the size cap, etc.)

It's not that us pitchfork-totin' populists are unwilling to pay the bill. It's that we want to know that in exchange for writing a very, very large check, the people that we are paying will actually deliver the goods. Given the behavior of bankers before the crisis and of shifty policymakers during, we have every reason to watch warily and to insist upon every precaution while we hand over suitcase after suitcase of freshly printed Federal Reserve notes.

This post can also be found on economistsview.typepad.com.

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