Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Stiglitz on Corporate welfarism

Joseph Stiglitz has a great piece on state capitalism. I'm sure the original is in a mainstream US publication, but the syndication I picked up via Naked Capitalism was in the Jakata Post. The whole thing is worth reading: here are some excerpts:
With all the talk of "green shoots" of economic recovery, America's banks are pushing back on efforts to regulate them. While politicians talk about their commitment to regulatory reform to prevent a recurrence of the crisis, this is one area where the devil really is in the details - and the banks will muster what muscle they have left to ensure that they have ample room to continue as they have in the past...

It has long been recognized that those America's banks that are too big to fail are also too big to be managed. That is one reason that the performance of several of them has been so dismal. When they fail, the government engineers a financial restructuring and provides deposit insurance, gaining a stake in their future. Officials know that if they wait too long, zombie or near zombie banks - with little or no net worth, but treated as if they were viable institutions - are likely to "gamble on resurrection." If they take big bets and win, they walk away with the proceeds, if they fail, the government picks up the tab.

The Obama administration has, however, introduced a new concept: "too big to be financially restructured"... Restructuring gives banks a chance for a new start: new potential investors (whether holders of 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.
The Obama administration has not restructured the banks. Instead, partly swayed by intense lobbying from the banks, they have rescued bondholders and even protected equity holders, at great cost to the taxpayer. As Stiglitz says
Most Americans view [this] 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 United States 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 automobiles, with no end in sight. In truth, this is not socialism, but an extension of long standing 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.
Stiglitz is angry about this, and you should be too.

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