Dan Mitchell: “Bailouts reward past bad behavior”

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I wish the federal government would not play favorites and come in and do bailouts. It simply is not fair.

In the “Opposing View” Column, I Explain Why USA Today Is Wrong about Bailouts

September 17, 2012 by Dan Mitchell

I think it’s a mistake to bail out profligate governments, and I have the same skeptical attitude about bailouts for mismanaged banks and inefficient car companies.

Simply stated, bailouts reward past bad behavior and make future bad behavior more likely (what economists call moral hazard).

But some folks think government was right to put taxpayers on the hook for the sloppy decisions of private companies. Here’s the key passage in USA Today’s editorial on bailouts.

Put simply, the bailouts worked. True, in some cases the government did not do a very good job with the details, and taxpayers are out $142 billion in connection with the non-TARP takeovers of housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But it’s time for the economic purists and the Washington cynics to admit that government can occasionally do something positive, at least when faced with a terrifying crisis.

Well, I guess I’m one of those “economic purists” and “Washington cynics,” so I’m still holding firm to the position that the bailouts were a mistake. In my “opposing view” column, I argue that the auto bailout sets a very bad precedent.

Unfortunately, the bailout craze in the United States is a worrisome sign cronyism is taking root. In the GM/Chrysler bailout, Washington intervened in the bankruptcy process and arbitrarily tilted the playing field to help politically powerful creditors at the expense of others. …This precedent makes it more difficult to feel confident that the rule of law will be respected in the future when companies get in trouble. It also means investors will be less willing to put money into weak firms. That’s not good for workers, and not good for the economy.

If I had more space (the limit was about 350 words), I also would have dismissed the silly assertion that the auto bailout was a success. Yes, GM and Chrysler are still in business, but the worst business in the world can be kept alive with sufficiently large transfusions of taxpayer funds.

And we’re not talking small amounts. The direct cost to taxpayers presently is about $25 billion, though I noted as a postscript in this otherwise humorous post that experts like John Ransom have shown the total cost is far higher.

And here’s what I wrote about the financial sector bailouts.

The pro-bailout crowd argues that lawmakers had no choice. We had to recapitalize the financial system, they argued, to avoid another Great Depression. This is nonsense. The federal government could have used what’s known as “FDIC resolution” to take over insolvent institutions while protecting retail customers. Yes, taxpayer money still would have been involved, but shareholders, bondholders and top executives would have taken bigger losses. These relatively rich groups of people are precisely the ones who should burn their fingers when they touch hot stoves. Capitalism without bankruptcy, after all, is like religion without hell. And that’s what we got with TARP. Private profits and socialized losses are no way to operate a prosperous economy.

The part about “FDIC resolution” is critical. I’ve explained, both in a post criticizing Dick Cheney and in another post praising Paul Volcker, that policymakers didn’t face a choice of TARP vs nothing. They could have chosen the quick and simple option of giving the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation additional authority to put insolvent banks into something akin to receivership.

Indeed, I explained in an online debate for U.S. News & World Report that the FDIC did handle the bankruptcies of both IndyMac and WaMu. And they could have used the same process for every other poorly run financial institution.

But the politicians didn’t want that approach because their rich contributors would have lost money.

I have nothing against rich people, of course, but I want them to earn money honestly.

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