This is not just theory; it is a lesson we learned, at great expense, during the s crisis of the 1980s. . . In a financial restructuring, shareholders typically get wiped out, and bondholders become the new shareholders. Sometimes the government must provide additional funds; sometimes it looks for a new investor to take over the failed bank.
The Obama administration has, however, introduced a new concept: too big to be financially restructured. The administration argues that all hell would break loose if we tried to play by the usual rules with these big banks. Markets would panic. So, we not only can't touch the bondholders, we also can't even touch the shareholders - even if most of the shares' existing value merely reflects a bet on a government bailout. . .
I think the Obama administration has succumbed to political pressure and scaremongering by the big banks. As a result, the administration has confused bailing out the bankers and their shareholders with bailing out the banks.
Restructuring gives banks a chance for a new start: new potential investors (whether in equity or debt instruments) will have more confidence, other banks will be more willing to lend to them and they will be more willing to lend to others. The bondholders will gain from an orderly restructuring, and if the value of the assets is truly greater than the market (and outside analysts) believe, they will eventually reap the gains.
But what is clear is that the Obama strategy's current and future costs are very high - and so far, it has not achieved its limited objective of restarting lending. The taxpayer has had to pony up billions, and has provided billions more in guarantees - bills that are likely to come due in the future.
Rewriting the rules of the market economy -in a way that has benefited those that have caused so much pain to the entire global economy - is worse than financially costly. Most Americans view it as grossly unjust, especially after they saw the banks divert the billions intended to enable them to revive lending to payments of outsized bonuses and dividends. Tearing up the social contract is something that should not be done lightly.
But this new form of ersatz capitalism, in which losses are socialized and profits privatized, is doomed to failure. Incentives are distorted. There is no market discipline. The too-big-to-be-restructured banks know that they can gamble with impunity - and, with the Federal Reserve making funds available at near-zero interest rates, there are ample funds to do so.
Some have called this new economic regime "socialism with American characteristics". But socialism is concerned about ordinary individuals. By contrast, the US has provided little help for the millions of Americans who are losing their homes. Workers who lose their jobs receive only 39 weeks of limited unemployment benefits, and are then left on their own. And, when they lose their jobs, most lose their health insurance too.
America has expanded its corporate safety net in unprecedented ways, from commercial banks to investment banks, then to insurance and now to cars, with no end in sight. In truth, this is not socialism, but an extension of longstanding corporate welfarism. The rich and powerful turn to the government to help them whenever they can, while needy individuals get little social protection.
We need to break up the too-big-to-fail banks; there is no evidence that these behemoths deliver societal benefits that are commensurate with the costs they have imposed on others. And, if we don't break them up, then we have to severely limit what they do. They can't be allowed to do what they did in the past - gamble at others' expenses.
This raises another problem with America's too-big-to-fail, too-big-to-be-restructured banks: they are too politically powerful. Their lobbying efforts worked well, first to deregulate and then to have taxpayers pay for the cleanup. Their hope is that it will work once again to keep them free to do as they please, regardless of the risks for taxpayers and the economy. We cannot afford to let that happen.