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April 17, 2008

Hazardous Morals

Moral Hazard is a term of art, it has an old fashioned kind of zing to it, like a Jane Austin novel where the cardinal points are attraction, marriage, pound sterling per year, and caddish behavior (a seducer runs off with a foolish 15 year old with no intention to marry her, or even worse, commit marriage sans income).

Lately, of course, moral hazard has become in the popular press something associated with the ongoing financial crisis. Roughly defined, it invokes the requirement that investors, fully rewarded for their wins, must also pay the whole price for their haircuts. And so, it's not bad behavior, per se, that must be reckoned to the full but behavior that results in material loss, wanton or not. In this latest crash there has been no shortage of the usual caddish behaviors: salespeople were spiffed to get customers into financially disadvantageous loan agreements, borrowers faked their personal financial data, rating agencies put their AAA imprimaturs on toxic paper, bankers created an insatiable demand for loans they could package and pass on, "counterparties" cleaned up writing default swaps they could market, regulators looked the other way, brokerages shorted the securities they themselves issued to their own customers, hedge funds borrowed heavily to get their bets into the game, bankers made extreme loans to hedge funds, bankers created off the-book entities to issue suspect paper, etc.

Meltdown and Stranded Whales

And, of course, when this rash of bad behavior went from endemic to epidemic, the usual calls for government intervention went out, first by the general public when foreclosure signs began to sprout in their neighborhoods like mushrooms in a rainy Fall and then in the weightier pages of the WSJ and FT when it became clear that the great investment houses, themselves, had been left swallowing their own toxic waste and melting into the ground like a serial Three Mile Manhattan, London and Basil. As fast as the Fed and the ECB pumped "liquidity" into the markets, the faster the banking system seemed to fuse to a halt. Something more radical than winners and losers was occurring, hence the concerted move to a bail time-out for the whales left flapping on the beaches.

For the cynics here in Dymaxia, it came as no surprise that the bailouts would extend well beyond the former limits of the commercial banks all the way to the free-market precincts of the hedge fund industry. After all, by definition hedge funds are highly leveraged entities that do their borrowing from their willing commercial and investment banker brethren. We also remembered Ben Bernanke's famous "helicopter" speech in which he vowed to keep the government printing presses going day and night to supply whatever money might be needed to keep the system off (or on, we couldn't recall) its knees.

To ourselves, laying down the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, we mused, moral hazard is about as quaint a notion today as the characters in Austin's Sense and Sensibility might have appeared to Choderlos de Laclos, the author of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, had he lived long enough to contemplate them. In the end, it was the chronicler of another gilded age that seemed more appropriate, and so we deferred to the much maligned Marquis de Sade for our contemporary standards for hazardous morals.

As we noted in our last posting,
Pushing on a String of Discontent: Bernanke's Tale
: Bernanke's Tale, the Wall Street executives who led their companies so deeply into this quagmire, would surely not admit, even under oath, that the good performance their companies produced as the pyramid scheme unfolded, and for which they were so richly rewarded by cash and stock option bonuses, had little or nothing to do with the hard landings their companies were experiencing today. "Who could have predicted," their chorus lamented, "that the unprecedented growth in home equity and home ownership, would have resulted in a bursting bubble?" And like all farces that recount the foibles of the Gods, economists, the regulators and the mainstream press, echoed in polyphonic tone from across the stage, "who would have predicted"?

And so, in keeping with the moment's theme of decadent farce and moral hazard, we asked rhetorically, will those entities that are now rushing in to save the remnants of Bear Stearns (it was too late for these guys who, it appears, were so swimming in toxic waste that a special $29 billion fund had to be set aside by the Fed to soak it up) and most recently Lehman Brothers (they've already availed of $4 billion in back-up spare change) be asked to take back some of the bonuses that were paid out to top executives during the recent up years?

The answer, of course, is that it will take another round of heat, at least, before anyone begins looking for a couple of high level guys for some communal bloodletting. After all, James Cayne, the Chairman and CEO at Bear Stearns, we hear from those same journalists who continue to insist on calling that company's forced by-out, a non-bailout, has paid dearly for the loss of equity he suffered. His shares, they remind us, went for $10 a piece when just a couple of years ago they were trading at $171. We are, by this light, supposed to suffer for the good chap who like a Long Island Nero, played bridge while his firm and his bonus shares sank into the clutches of the goodly fiends at JPMorgan Chase.

Quaint, we say, because today's gilded age has funneled so much wealth into the hands of this super class that counts its yearly earnings not in the hundreds of millions but in the thousands of millions of dollars even while the tax rates paid by this Łber group are less than those paid by the lowest wage earners. Last year, a tepid attempt by Congress to reckon hedge fund manager earnings as taxable earnings was quickly shunted to that special place on Capitol Hill where all high minded efforts go to be stored, like Walt Disney's body, for a better day.

Leveraged Fall Out

Speaking of which, the distortions created by economic policies that hide the cost of war, rely on declared and hidden deficit spending, encourage plastic-based consumerism, personal credit extension, negative real-term interest rates to discourage saving, and money printing dollar devaluation are now emerging like the dead from the earth on Judgment Day: basic commodities, like food and energy costs ripple upward even as economic activity slows, the banks, unsure of the value of their own securities, refrain from lending and wages continue to fall for the vast middle even by normal definitions-- measured against wages in the Euro and Yen zone, the loss in buying power for the average American over the decade has accelerated in a way that is astounding.

The housing bubble, the ultimate, live today, pay tomorrow spree, where anybody could borrow as much as he wanted, was the antidote to the sinking of American economic hegemony. And yet there is also a Main Street equivalent to the moral hazard story that has appeared, like a throwback to some cloth coat Republican era, both in George Bush's and John McCain's rhetoric as they have been forced to grasp the systemic and political implications of a housing bubble meltdown: never mind the dastardly builders, loan brokers and debt packagers, what about all those obnoxious speculators you used to run into at every wedding, first communion and bar mitzvah party? All of them had just successfully flipped a whole bunch of condos somewhere or other, turned their log cabin into a country manor house and had all become safely installed in their suburban equivalent of Monticello. Are these the guys who need to be bailed out of all their flimsy loan deals?

As for those Members of Congress who are supposed to be working to get aid to all the poor folks who just happened to get sucked into the housing frenzy at the wrong moment or through devious paper sleight of hand (remember those spiffs that pulled brokers toward selling loans with trap doors built in) , we wish them the best or luck. They will need every ounce of backbone they can stiffen, or, not only will the lion's share go to the same scoundrels who partied on the way up (NYTimes on the Senate version,
Big Tax Breaks for Businesses in Housing Bill
) but also to the shareholders of the two big once quasi governmental agencies that were designed during the New Deal to save housing during that desperate period, Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac. The proposal on the table would build in government backing to expand Fanny and Freddy's capacity to lend to soak up bad mortgages designed to spin out of control with a new crop of fixed-rate models to homeowners even if their present houses are already underwater.

Beyond the personal debacles, a falling housing market that might lose up to 40% of present value is predicted to cause the kind of Main Street financial chaos that would spread beyond containment. Of course, the new plan would require the Federal Government to provide guarantees for all these new underwater loans in case homeowners just plain decide to walk away from their homes in search of greener pastures. It needs to be noted that here, once again, the backstop is going to be the already battered dollar, and the recipient agencies, though hybrids of a sort (Fannie, for instance, uses its quasi status to avoid paying local property taxes for its headquarters in DC), these are private stock issuing entities just emerging from bookkeeping scandals that fortified private industry level salaries and bonuses for their executives.

You already know that the US finances a very expensive war by printing dollars off the books (which no doubt explains why billions of them have just disappeared into the Mesopotamian underground) runs a built in deficit that grows from year to year and buys ever more from abroad. The Federal Reserve is providing hundreds of billions to backstop a financial system that has taken shock one, the blowback from the sub-prime crisis but may soon face the prospect of seeing the loans and counterparty paper issued to "insure" the equally speculative business of highly leveraged buyouts come a cropper as well. This Recession is like the new year, hardly a baby still. Prolonged recessions can be trouble for a number of corporations under normal circumstances but for leveraged buyouts paying out enormous debt loads, a few bad quarters can be as toxic as the sub-primes were for leveraged financial giants like Bear and Lehman Bros.

We recall that up to a short while a ago, LBO's, or leveraged buy-outs, were all the rage on Wall Street. Last week, one of them, Linen and Things, with 17,000 employees around the country, announced they were shutting their doors. With gas prices expected to hit $4 a gallon this summer ( it's already there in some places, while the Diesel fuel that truckers rely on has already passed that line across the country), building activity down, and the price for food hitting the roof, it's hard to believe that Linen and Things will be the only stretched out retailer to bite the dust. As the Chinese currency, the RMB is inevitably pushed up to counter the worldwide inflation in raw materials, the price of retail goods in the US will have to move with it, despite what the round smiley face signs at the end of the aisle tell us.

Those who argue that this Recession still has a long way down to go, certainly have more than their share of arguments and data to back it up. Watch out!

Posted by dymaxion at 01:47 PM

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