Posts Tagged 'Congress'

The Congress AIG Bonus Bill: Bravo! (Seriously…)

Great. Now there’s a backlash to the backlash to the AIG bonuses, and everyone is scolding Congress for acting so rashly in crafting a bill designed to recover 90% of the bonuses in taxes.

Conservatives are complaining the bill is unconstitutional and unproductive. In his Obama interview, Jay Leno said he’s frightened about its implications, and dagblog.com’s own Genghis is mocking the effort.

Gimme a break.

Don’t get me wrong. I have plenty of problems with this bill.

I question the constitutionality of the law.

I think targeting bonuses alone is unwise and insufficient. Companies will just get around the law by increasing base salaries, and bonuses in any case are a reasonable compensation incentive, as long as they’re tightly tied to performance at the individual AND corporate level.

I agree that some talented people may be poached by companies not encumbered by the law and that this would put the very institutions we’re trying to rescue even further behind the eight ball.

I worry that banks that aren’t healthy may try to return the TARP money as soon as possible, undermining the main purpose of the program in the first place – keeping the banks well capitalized and the credit flowing.

However, I think all of these potential issues aren’t nearly as concerning as the critics would have you believe.

I’m no lawyer or Constitutional expert, but I do believe the bill of attainder issue has been at least somewhat addressed by broadening the law to include bonuses paid by any bank receiving a certain amount of TARP money. At a minimum, the answer doesn’t appear clear-cut and deciding questions of legislative constitutionality is one of the reasons why we have the court system anyway.

While I’d rather have Congress devise a broader, much more considerate compensation bill, I’m not going to cry that banks which are receiving significant sums of taxpayer money in order to stay solvent are severely limited in their ability to pay out bonuses to people already making a very good living (the bill only targets households with income greater than $250,000). When these banks are healthy and making a profit again, they can return the money and institute whatever compensation policies they want.

In terms of top talent leaving banks targeted by the bill, I think this concern has been wildly exaggerated. The financial industry has been decimated; unemployment in the sector is very high and even some very talented capable individuals are out of work and available should any talent be poached. Besides, you gotta find it laughable that we are worried about these ‘best and the brightest’, since it was in large part these very same folks with their fancy financial alchemy that created the monster which finally broke our system. Perhaps a thorough management cleansing at some of these companies would ultimately be helpful.

I also largely dismiss concerns regarding the unintended consequences of incentivizing banks to return the TARP money too quickly. If banks are healthy, we want them to return the TARP money as soon as possible. If banks are not healthy, and still attempt to return the TARP money, the government can stop them. Government regulation requires a certain amount of capitalization, and the stress tests will hopefully further separate the healthy institutions from the sick ones.

In short, I am glad Congress is moving in haste on this issue, even if in practical terms the AIG bonuses are chicken feed and any legislation addressing them will do very little in terms of getting us out of our current mess.

Would it have been so much better had we used force of law to stop AIG from giving out the bonuses n the first place? Absolutely, and if Geithner or others did not act forcefully enough to make that happen, I hope they are taken to task for that failure.

Do I hope our legislators take the time to craft a meaningful, defensible bill that minimizes any negative unintended consequences? Of course. Now that the first tranche of bonuses have already been paid out, and it will be up to the government to get the money back, it only makes sense to do this right.

But symbolism matters, and if we plan on continuing this practice of doling out hundreds of billions of dollars to companies in need, we have to show that this kind of behavior won’t be tolerated. It’s our money, and we have a right to say how it is used.

If in the process, we begin talking about how our culture of excess and misaligned compensation policies led to an unhealthy focus on short-term profit and an imbalance in dangerous risk-taking, then all the better.

You’re kidding, right?? ….

So yesterday I wrote about how the Senate was making the bailout plan bigger but not better in order to get reluctant legislators aboard.

Oh man, you have no idea. It makes me want to cry.

According to the WSJ, A bill that was originally 3 pages is now more than 400 pages. Among the useless ‘sweeteners’ tacked onto the plan:

  • Economic development credit to American Samoan businesses
  • 50% tax credit for some expenditures on maintaining railroad tracks
  • 7-year recovery period for motorsports racetrack property
  • Special expensing rules for film and TV productions
  • Income averaging for Exxon Valdez litigants for tax purposes
  • $10,000 tax credit for training of mine rescue team members
  • Deduction for income from domestic production in Puerto Rico
  • Increasing cover of rum excise tax revenues to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands

AND MY FAVORITE …

  • Exempting children’s wooden arrows from excise tax

YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!!!!

McCain says all the time that if he becomes President, we will know the names of the politicans who try to push their own pet earmarks. It’s one of the things he says that resonates with me.

I know people say this is the way Washington works. It’s how laws get passed. Give and take. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Gotta please the constituents … That’s bullshit.

It takes a lot for me to get outraged at something our government does. I’m as cynical as they come. But how dare these politicians use this moment, this time, with the economy on the edge of collapse and the financial fate of millions of Americans on the line, to muddy up an already outrageously expensive plan with such useless additions.

Let’s get something straight: These changes do not make the plan better. And they weren’t needed to get this deal passed. Politicians who voted against the bill were already worried that their ‘No’ vote pushed a teetering economy over the edge, and many of them were looking for a second chance to make amends. A couple of small, but relevant, changes to the plan would have provided all the cover they needed.

All this additional pork is a travesty of the legislative process. And if the candidates really mean it when they spout the word Change like it’s some kind of magical Buddhist mantra, it’s the kind of crap they’ll try to put a stop to when they get elected.

Is this a better bailout … or just a bigger, badder one?

So now the Senate is going to try its hand at passing a bailout plan. I’d make a prediction that the bill will almost certainly be passed by both chambers of Congress, but I apparently am a lot better at sports and market predictions than political ones.

The Senate bill seems extremely similar to the one rejected by the House earlier this week, save for a few sweeteners thrown in to try and mollify the politicians who thought the the original plan either did too much to blow up the deficit and prevent the market from self-cleansing (Republicans) or not enough to help lower- or middle-class Americans (Democrats).

Unfortunately, most of these ‘sweeteners’ really aren’t so sweet. Instead of exemplifying the wonderful compromises that can be created when a messy political system works its gridlocked magic, many of these proposed changes are just more sour examples of a broken Washington that encourages myopic legislation.

For instance, let’s take a look at perhaps the most controversial addition to the bill: Modification of the current mark-to-market accounting policies now in place that force banks to price their assets at current market levels.

This is a complicated issue, but mark-to-market basically forced banks to take huge writedowns on the mortgage-backed securities that are at the core of the current crisis and still mostly rotting away on balance sheets throughout the system.

Critics say the mark-to-market rule has a couple of main problems: 1) Banks which are forced to take writedowns must raise more capital and curb lending to satisfy reserve requirements or face insolvency, which only helps contribute to the spiraling meltdown 2) Mark-to-market leads to inaccurate or unnecessarily overstated writedowns, since in many cases the market for these mortgage securities is non-existent or in a state of unusual distress.

These critics say that if mark-to-market stands while the bailout plan is implemented, banks will be less likely to sell their bad assets to the government at low prices because that will mean they will have to book huge losses on the rest of their balance sheets. These critics instead want these assets to be valued by bank regulators … the same regulators who had little to no idea of the problems being created by the housing bubble.

In my opinion, getting rid of mark-to-market would be a big mistake. Marking to market ensures that banks take their lumps and move expeditiously to shore up their balance sheets. Japan’s decade-long retrenchment has lasted as long as it has partly because banks refused to face up to current realities. A report from a Credit Suisse analyst put it best: “Which information is more relevant, what you paid for an asset in the past or what it’s worth right now?”

This may be one of the worst changes, but almost all of the other ‘sweeteners’ in the Senate version of the bill will raise the total cost of the plan while producing, at best, unclear benefits. I fear that the cost of this bailout package will soar past initial estimates, and younger generations will be paying for this mess for decades to come.

Among the other changes being discussed in the Senate bill:

  • Temporarily raising FDIC insurance to $250,000 per account. This is a mostly cosmetic move designed to bolster people’s confidence in banks and keep them from moving funds out of the system, esp. with regards to smaller institutions. Alas, if a lot of banks go under, the FDIC won’t be able to afford the increased coverage and will have to borrow more from the Treasury. Ugh.
  • Relief from the alternative minimum tax, or the AMT. Call me biased, but this is a good idea. The AMT has gone far beyond what it was originally intended to do, which was to make sure that very rich folks do not use deductions to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. Because it hasn’t been indexed to inflation, the AMT now affects millions of middle-class Americans, including yours truly. But whether AMT reform makes sense or not, relief won’t come without a price (and stop me if you’ve heard this one before): An even bigger deficit.
  • The creation or extension of a slew of tax breaks, including an R&D credit for businesses, and local and state tax deductions for individuals. Some of these deductions do encourage desirable behavior, such as the purchase of solar panels, but I’m sure some of them will end up being as stupid as our ethanol subsidies, and all of them will come with a cost.
  • A mental healthy parity law, which requires certain health insurance companies to provide the same coverage for mental illness and addiction as they do for physical illness. OK, this may be a fine and worthwhile legislative initiative, but it has absolutely no place being added to a bailout plan.

Holy *%$# … Bailout defeated, Market collapses

OK, I was wrong. Really wrong. I was sure politicians would approve this bailout bill, no matter how publicly unpopular it was. The short-term risks of not doing something seemed too enormous – a complete freeze of the credit markets and the subsequent collapse of the economic system that relies so heavily on that free flow of credit.

But apparently, there’s one other short-term risk I didn’t consider strongly enough: The fact that every last one of those 435 members of the House of Representatives are facing elections in a month and could be tossed out on their rear ends if they piss off their constituencies.

To put it mildly, the financial markets didn’t take too kindly to news of the plan’s defeat. Even with a pretty widespread short-selling ban in place, the Dow Jones average fell more than 700 points, while the Nasdaq plummeted more than 9 PERCENT!!!!!

So now what should you do? Well, here are my thoughts.

  • I obviously would never give specific investment advice here, but if you have money set aside and a long-term time horizon, putting some of that money to work doesn’t sound like a bad idea. I put an order in for a small amount of an S&P index mutual fund. But that’s been my strategy every year – put a little more money into the market during the bleakest time of the year. In general, you want to be buying when everyone is selling. As I’ve said in other posts, this situation could definitely end up being Armageddon and/or the next Great Depression (at some point, the American empire will collapse just like every other one in history), but that bleak forecast is probably not the most likely scenario. And even if it is, having a shoebox full of cash stashed under your bed won’t do you that much good. Eventually, at some point, I’d begin to look at the riskiest, hardest-hit sectors as possible places to invest – Homebuilders and real estate, financial institutions, etc. – but I’d wait awhile to see how things shake out.
  • While dipping a toe in these scary investment waters, I’d also hedge my bets a bit just in case things get appreciably worse. Personally, I’d spread out my money to separate institutions if I had to make sure my bank accounts were within the $100,000 FDIC insured level. Obviously, there are stronger banks and weaker banks, but in a crisis, it’s tough to be certain of the difference so there’s no harm in being prudent. Also, the government last week guaranteed against losses in money market funds for one year, but to be extra-safe, I’ve pulled money out of those accounts and into plain-Jane savings accounts.

It’s odd: I don’t agree with the free-market, deficit-hawk politicians who have opposed this bill and blocked its passage (I believe that we have no choice but to act), but on some level I actually admire them for sticking to their principles. The lessons of The Great Depression and subsequent crises suggest otherwise, but they could be right that we need to suffer the consequences of our actions and take the full extent of our medicine if we are truly going to cleanse the system. A bailout plan poorly executed will only make it worse down the road.

However, I still think the risk of inaction is too high, and that these politicians will look at the market and economic fallout of their No vote over the next couple of days and then pass a bailout plan that is very similar to the one they rejected.

After all, this decision wasn’t just about principles, but about politics. And the politics could change very quickly if the electorate realizes that The Powers That Be weren’t bullshitting when they warned that Wall Street blood would pour onto Main Street.

One $700B bailout coming up…

OK, the market’s up big. The bailout plan is about to be unveiled. What does it all mean? Here are my immediate thoughts.

  • Of course, the bailout plan is coming. Talk earlier this week that Democrats or hard-core free-market Republicans would torpedo the agreement was totally asinine. Very few politicians in their right minds would say no to this deal and risk being seen as the ones who put the final nail in the economy’s coffin, creating nightmarish scenes of bank runs and bread lines. What is smart and totally predictable is for politicians to raise a lot of hay and ask a lot of questions, so they can a) try to get things added or subtracted from the bill which they find disagreeable and b) blame others if the deal doesn’t work. This week was truly the American political system working as it always does, with plenty of good, bad, and ugly (or at least messy).
  • One of the last sticking points to getting to a compromise on the bill appears to be related to the Democrats wanting the ability for bankruptcy judges to amend mortgages for primary residences. I’ve said in earlier posts that I don’t think a lot of people understood what they were signing (or were deliberately misled) when they entered into these adjustable-rate mortgages and bought houses they couldn’t afford. So I do feel like it’s OK if we help people stay in their homes even if they were the ones who made bad decisions, as long as we are talking about primary residences – and not second homes or investment properties. However, I also feel this country has for too long encouraged an unhealthy focus on home ownership as being a key element of that mythical American Dream, a subject I will soon expound upon in a future post.
  • There is now talk that Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats want to bring another stimulus package up for debate in the House as early as tomorrow. Please don’t. The first stimulus package didn’t work, and this one won’t either. Again, I understand their political appeal, esp. when Congress is authorizing hundreds of billions to help bailout the banking system, but these stimulus packages offer about the same benefit as energy drinks provide for someone who’s woefully short on sleep. The rush ends way too quickly and the problems end up being worse than before. If we’re going to further burden our already troubled balance sheet, it’d be so much better if we take any money for a stimulus package and use it to help displaced workers acquire new skills or go back to school, or if we used it to invest in our country’s deteriorating infrastructure, or for public transportation projects, or alternative energy development. (anything that will increase American employee productivity or lead to real, lasting tangible benefits, neither of which stimulus plans accomplish).
  • The announcement of the bailout package will hardly signal the end of the story. The details haven’t yet been revealed, but I can assure you if the process goes down anything like the S&L crisis of 20 years ago, there will be plenty of bumps along the way. I’m assuming whatever deal gets signed into law will leave a lot of leeway for the Treasury Dept. and the Federal Reserve in figuring out how to handle the situation, but Congress will be watching closely and they ultimately control the purse strings. Whichever candidate takes over the White House will probably be preoccupied with this issue for at least the first year or two of their term. Plus, financial institutions aren’t the only ones that will be needing financial assistance from the government, esp. if the credit markets don’t unfreeze very soon. I expect the next industry expecting a handout will be the automotive industry, which is struggling badly and loaded with debt. And because Michigan is such a key battleground for the November elections, it would be in their interest to come a-callin’ to the government kitty as soon as possible. (Actually, speak of the devil, the House just passed a $25 billion loan package for the auto industry. Ugh.)
  • Again, I wish I could say with certainty that this bailout package will solve our problems over time and that we’ve seen the worst of this crisis. The problem is, we are dealing with unprecendented events. The world is a lot more complicated than it was in the 1920s and 30s. The world’s economies are more intertwined, and the financial instruments at the heart of this mess are much more complex. I expect a prolonged global slowdown, with the only good news being that we may be further along the road than a lot of other markets, including the high-flying emerging economies that will likely see sharp downturns.
  • The market is up big today on the news of the impending announcement, but we’re nowhere near where we were even last week when the bailout plan was first bandied about. As investors start to realize what a long, hard slog this is going to be, I believe the enthusiasm will wane very quickly (let’s not forget we’re still working under the ill-advised SEC short selling ban, which is surely keeping the market at artificial levels). Even if we’ve seen the market lows this year (something I am not totally convinced of), we won’t revisit our old highs for a few years.

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