On Stockman & Liquidation

David Stockman’s New York Times Op-Ed has ruffled a lot of feathers. Paul Krugman dislikes it, saying Stockman sounds like a cranky old man, and criticising Stockman for throwing out a load of meaningless numbers that sound kind of scary, but are less scary in context. Krugman is right on both counts, but what Krugman overlooks is Stockman’s excellent criticism of crony capitalism, financialisation, systemic rot and Wall Street corruption of Washington, something Stockman has seen from the inside as part of the Reagan administration.

The important part:

Essentially there was a cleansing run on the wholesale funding market in the canyons of Wall Street going on. It would have worked its will, just like JP Morgan allowed it to happen in 1907 when we did not have the Fed getting in the way. Because they stopped it in its tracks after the AIG bailout and then all the alphabet soup of different lines that the Fed threw out, and then the enactment of TARP, the last two investment banks standing were rescued, Goldman and Morgan Stanley, and they should not have been.

As a result of being rescued and having the cleansing liquidation of rotten balance sheets stopped, within a few weeks and certainly months they were back to the same old games, such that Goldman Sachs got $10 billion dollars for the fiscal year that started three months later after that check went out, which was October 2008. For the fiscal 2009 year, Goldman Sachs generated what I call a $29 billion surplus – $13 billion of net income after tax, and on top of that $16 billion of salaries and bonuses, 95% of it which was bonuses.

Therefore, the idea that they were on death’s door does not stack up. Even if they had been, it would not make any difference to the health of the financial system. These firms are supposed to come and go, and if people make really bad bets, if they have a trillion dollar balance sheet with six, seven, eight hundred billion dollars worth of hot-money short-term funding, then they ought to take their just reward, because it would create lessons, it would create discipline. So all the new firms that would have been formed out of the remnants of Goldman Sachs where everybody lost their stock values – which for most of these partners is tens of millions, hundreds of millions – when they formed a new firm, I doubt whether they would have gone back to the old game. What happened was the Fed stopped everything in its tracks, kept Goldman Sachs intact, the reckless Goldman Sachs and the reckless Morgan Stanley, everyone quickly recovered their stock value and the game continues. This is one of the evils that comes from this kind of deep intervention in the capital and money markets.

There are plenty of other writers who have pointed to this problem of propping up casino finance, including myself. But very few of them are doing so on the pages of the New York Times. So while it’s rather disappointing to see Stockman railing against deficits when the evidence shows capital and labour markets are still very slack even with large deficits, and while it’s rather disappointing to see him making technically-incorrect claims about the United States being “bankrupt” — sovereign lenders controlling their own currency cannot go bankrupt — we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Stockman is a cranky old man — but when it comes to drawing attention to real-world problems with crony capitalism, he’s doing a fine job.

Many will say that just letting the banks liquidate was not an option. I tend to disagree — depositors could have been protected, and a new part-nationalised banking system could perhaps have been built and capitalised just as quickly as the old dinosaurs were bailed out — but even if we assume liquidation to be impossible there are plenty of other options to bring the financial sector to heel. It is extremely disappointing to see the Obama administration fail to go after the banks in any meaningful way. The administration could have tried to break up the TBTF megabanks, reimpose Glass-Steagall, impose the Volcker Rule, fire failed management. Perhaps even try to impose the Chicago Plan. Without Fed liquidity, the US banking sector is toast, so almost any reform is possible.

Instead the banks took their bailouts without any discipline, and guess what? We’ve had even more systemic corruption, carrying on in the same pre-2008 mould — the London Whale, Ina Drew, Kweku Adoboli, the theft of segregated deposits by MF Global, even while financial sector stocks have soared. Central banks have reinflated the markets, but with the same people who created the last bust still in charge, it looks much more like a reinflated bubble than a road to lasting prosperity. Papering over the cracks…

The result of that is soaring corporate profits while employment and wages remain depressed. Feast for Wall Street, famine for Main Street. Obama may deploy plenty of populist rhetoric, but outcomes speak for themselves:

fredgraph (19)

Stockman has actually gone further in the past, criticising the toothlessness of Dodd-Frank in dealing with the problem of Too Big To Fail, and even endorsing a return to Glass-Steagall and the banning of corporate campaign donations. This 30-minute video is really worth watching:

 

In the long run, I think it will become patently clear that throwing liquidity at the financial system won’t solve anything other than immediate liquidity concerns. The rot was too deep. The financial sector needed real reform in 2008. It still needs it today.

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The Absurdity of Sandy Weill

I’m suggesting the big banks be broken up so that the taxpayer will never be at risk, the depositors won’t be at risk and the leverage will be something reasonable.

This from the guy who provided the impetus and the funds to end Glass-Steagall? Totally absurd — akin to Joe Stalin renouncing Marxism-Leninism and the gulag archipelago on his deathbed.

Glass-Steagall’s separation between depository and speculative institutions — especially during the Bretton Woods period — was a relatively robust system; there was never a large-scale banking calamity of the nature of 2008 or 1929 under its regime. Certainly, it had its imperfections — above all else that it never prevented bankers like Weill from chipping away at it up to the point of repeal — but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and Glass-Steagall presided over a period of growth and stability.

While the data tends to show that the end of Bretton Woods in 1971 was the real catalyst of the financialisation, globalisation, deindustrialisation and debt buildup that ultimately flung the US into a depressionary deleveraging trap, the end of Glass-Steagall was profound.

Depositors’ funds became a medium for the creation of the huge and sprawling shadow banking and derivatives webs.

The blowout growth in shadow banking was presaged by the end of Glass-Steagall in 1999:

And the slow contractionary deleveraging of shadow banking has been a significant force in keeping the economy depressed since 2008. Any contrition on the part of Weill for his role in repealing Glass-Steagall might as well be an attempt to close the stable door after the horse has bolted. It’s like trying to uninvent the atom bomb after Hiroshima. Weill was the guy who — above anyone else — was responsible for the damage done.

Coming out and claiming that reimposing Glass-Steagall would fix the problem is inadequate. If he wants to be taken seriously he should match every dollar he spent trying to get Glass-Steagall repealed with new lobbying funds to reimpose a separation between banks that accept deposits and the shadow banking and derivatives casinos.

Beyond that, I think that this is very telling. The financial institutions will do anything to avoid the ultimate free market solution — the disorderly liquidation of the system they created via default cascade. If high-ranking members of the financial elite are willing to talk about reimposing Glass-Steagall, they must be seriously concerned that the system they built is getting dangerously close to self-destruction.

Liquidation is Vital

Many Keynesians really hate the concept of liquidationism. I’m trying to grasp why.

Paul Krugman wrote:

One discouraging feature of the current economic crisis is the way many economists and economic commentators — apparently ignorant of what went on over the last 75 years or so of macroeconomic debate — have been reinventing old fallacies, imagining that they were coming up with profound insights.

The Bank for International Settlements has decided to throw everything we’ve learned from 80 years of hard thought about macroeconomics out the window, and to embrace full-frontal liquidationism. The BIS is now advocating a position indistinguishable from that of Schumpeter in the 1930s, opposing any monetary expansion because that would leave “the work of depressions undone”.

Andrew Mellon summed up liquidationism as so:

The government must keep its hands off and let the slump liquidate itself. Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmes, liquidate real estate. When the people get an inflation brainstorm, the only way to get it out of their blood is to let it collapse. A panic is not altogether a bad thing. It will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people.

In light of the zombification that now exists in Japan and also America (and coming soon to every single QE and bailout-heavy Western economy) — zombie companies, poorly managed, making all the same mistakes as before, rudderless, and yet still in business thanks to government intervention  — it is clear that the liquidationists grasped something that Keynesians are still missing. Markets are largely no longer trading fundamentals; they are just trading state intervention and money printing. Why debate earnings when instead you can debate the prospects of QE3? Why invest in profitable companies and ventures when instead you can pay yourself a fat bonus cheque out of monetary stimulus? Why exercise caution and consideration when you can just gamble and get a bailout?

Unfortunately, Mellon and his counterparts at the 30s Fed were the wrong kind of liquidationists — they could not heed their own advice and leave the market be. Ironically, the 30s Fed in raising interest rates and failing to act as lender-of-last resort drove the market into a deeper depression than was necessary (and certainly a deeper one than happened in 1907) and crushed any incipient recovery.

Liquidation is not merely some abstract policy directive, or government function. It is an organic function of the market. As the stunning bounce-back from the Panic of 1907 shows — especially when contrasted against the 1930s — a  market liquidation on the back of a panic avoids a depression. Prices fall as far as the market deems necessary, before market participants quickly come back in into the frame, setting the market on a new trail toward growth. For without a central bank, asset-holders who want to maintain a strong economy and growth (in 2008, that probably would have meant sovereigns like China and Arabia) have to come in and pick up falling masonry as lenders of last resort.

Under a central banking regime (especially a Bernankean or Krugmanite one committed to Rooseveltian Resolve) all expectations fall onto the central bank.

My own view is not just that liquidation is vital. It is that the market mechanism is vital. Without their own capital as skin in the game, central bankers are playing blind. The pace of the liquidation and the pace of the recovery should be dictated by market participants — in other words, by society at large — not by the whims of distant technocrats. Society has more skin in the game. The Great Depression was not a crisis of too little intervention — it was a crisis of too much well-intentioned intervention.

As we are learning in our own zombie depression, a central bank doing the opposite of the 1930s Fed and reinflating may solve the problem of debt-deflation, but it causes many of its own problems — zombie banks, zombie corporations, zombie markets, corporate welfarism, and the destruction of the market mechanism.