Posts tagged ‘liquidity’

Window Dressing

Fed's reverse repo activity in Treasuries with major banks.  When I was on the corporate staff of a large conglomerate, we eventually busted one of our divisions for pushing inventory out the door on the last day of the quarter, only to have most of it returned a few days later, all as a way to boost quarterly revenues.  This appears to be the bankers' equivalent of such channel-stuffing.

Reverse Repo

 

Are the Feds really fooled by artificial quarter-end liquidity that is provided by the Feds themselves?  The stress-tests remind me of the story about FDR declaring a bank holiday, and claiming to have allowed only the strong banks to reopen the next day.  How did they know which were strong and weak?  They didn't, really.  The whole exercise was a PR ploy to boost consumer confidence in the banking industry.

Update:  Yep, there it all goes back where it came from

Reverse Repo April 1 2014

A Couple of Thoughts About Reinhart & Rogoff

As quick background, R&R had a study that found that higher government debt levels correlated to lower, even negative, economic growth.  More recently, others have found computational errors that exaggerated this result, and have criticized their methodology, particularly their approach to weighting data from different countries and years.

A few thoughts:

  1. A major reasons the errors were found is that R&R actually made their data available for replication.  This is apparently rare - certainly it is rare in the climate world.  I am glad they are getting kudos for this and hope the academic world can find a way to incentivize / force more data sharing
  2. I would not have expected a direct relationship between country debt levels and economic growth.  What I would expect is that growth can still be good at higher debt levels, but the risk of hitting a tipping point starts to rise dangerously with debt levels.  Eventually levels get so high that an interest rate shock or liquidity shock is almost inevitable
  3. More than a relation between GDP growth and absolute debt levels, I would have expected a relationship between GDP growth and changes in debt level.  Absolute government debt levels may represent resources removed from the productive economy years and decades earlier.  Increases in government debt represent recent decreases in capital available for productive use.

Does This Make A Lick of Sense? Wikipedia Says No Inflation Risk in QE3

I know, I know -- this is Wikipedia.  But there is a line there in the quantitative easing article that makes even less sense than other political topics at that site:

It should be noted that mortagage-backed securities such as are being purchased as part of the QE3 program are not based on liquid assets, and their purchase [by the Fed] does not entail inflation risks

This makes zero sense to me.  But maybe I am missing something.

First, I don't understand why the fact that the assets purchased with the printed money are liquid or not liquid.  If anything, I would have assumed that purchasing less liquid assets would have more inflation risk than the other way around.  If one puts more currency into the economy, the more currency-like the asset one pulls off the market, ie the more liquid, the less the inflation risk, I would have thought.

Second, while mortgages may not be liquid, mortgage-backed securities are very liquid.  If liquidity of the asset matters here, I am not sure why the underlying asset would matter as much as the asset itself being purchased.   I mean, by this metric, treasuries are based on a really, really illiquid asset, simply the full faith and credit of the US government.

Third, printing of money would seem to always have inflation risk, no matter what the government is purchasing with the still-wet dollars.  (yeah, I know, it's all digital).

Why Is No One From MF Global in Jail?

Whether crimes were involved in the failures of Enron, Lehman, & Bear Stearns is still being debated.  All three essentially died in the same way (borrowing short and investing long, with a liquidity crisis emerging when questions about the quality of their long-term investments caused them not to be able to roll over their short term debt).  Just making bad business decisions isn't illegal (or shouldn't be), but there are questions at all three whether management lied to (essentially defrauded) investors by hiding emerging problems and risks.

All that being said, MF Global strikes me as an order of magnitude worse.  They had roughly the same problem - they were unable to make what can be thought of as margin calls on leveraged investments that were going bad.  However, before they went bankrupt, it is pretty clear that they stole over a billion dollars of their customers' money.  Now, in criticizing Wall Street, people are pretty sloppy in over-using the word "stole."  But in this case it applies.  Everyone agrees that customer brokerage accounts are sacrosanct.  No matter what other fraud was or was not committed in these other cases, nothing remotely similar occurred in these other bankruptcies.

A few folks are talking civil actions against MF Global, but why isn't anyone up for criminal charges?  Someone, probably Corzine, committed a crime far worse than anything Jeff Skilling or Ken Lay were even accused of, much less convicted.   This happens time and again in the financial system.  People whine that we don't have enough regulations, but the most fundamental laws we have in place already are not enforced.

MF Global: Unethical, But Perhaps Not Illegal

Investors everywhere were shocked to see that MF Global seems to have lost over a billion dollars of their customers capital.  In most cases, this capital was cash customers thought was sequestered as collateral for their trading accounts.  MF Global took its customers money and used that money as collateral in making risky, leveraged bets on European sovereign debt, bets that fell apart as debt prices fell and MF Global faced margin calls on its bets that it did not have the liquidity to cover.

Certainly it strikes most folks as unethical to lose the assets in your customers' brokerage accounts making bets for the house.  But it turns out, it may have been entirely legal.  This article is quite good, and helps explain what was going on, what this "hypothecation" thing is (basically a fancy term for leveraging up assets by using them as collateral on loans), and why it may have been legal.

In short, the article discusses two regulatory changes that seemed to be important.  The first was a 2000 (ie Clinton era, for those who still think these regulatory screwups are attributable to a single Party) relaxation in how brokerages could invest customers' collateral in their trading accounts.  The second was a loophole where brokerages created subsidiaries in countries with no controls on how client money was re-used (in this case mostly the UK) and used those subsidiaries to reinvest money even in US brokerage accounts.

The increase in leverage was staggering.  Already, cash in most commodities trading accounts is leveraged - customers might have only 30% of the value of their trading positions as collateral on their margin account.  Then the brokerage houses took this collateral and used it as collateral on new loans.  Those receiving the collateral on the other end often did the same.

MF Global would be bad if it were fraud.  But it is even worse if MF Global is doing legally what every other brokerage house is still doing.

Here is the minimum one should do:  Diversify brokerage accounts.  We diversify between bonds and stocks and other investments, but many people have everything in one account with one company.  I am not sure anyone can be trusted any more.  My mutual funds are now spread across three firms and, if I grow my brokerage account for individual stocks and investments (right now it is tiny) I will split that as well.

Testing My Understanding

Today, US markets are rallying strongly (Dow up 400 points or so at the moment) on news of coordinated central bank action that, that .... that what?  It looks to me like the US and European banks are merely building up liquidity in preparation for potential bank runs.  I would have considered this bad news, kind of like news we just went to DEFCON 2, but for some reason the market is rallying (though there was also an ADP report saying hiring was way up last month, which is certainly good news).

As I wrote yesterday, there only appear to be 3 solutions to the European debt crisis and this is not one of them.  If I am right and patterns hold, the markets will wake up in a day or two and say, "wait, there is still trillions of Euros of deteriorating sovereign debt sitting on bank balance sheets with 40:1 leverage ratios" and fall back.  I am thrilled that our economy shows signs of life and I know that corporate profits have been good, but I don't see any way a European debt crash won't have substantial negative effects on the US.   If I am wrong, the market will continue up, up and away and you should stop ever listening to me because I clearly don't understand squat.

Update:  Yesterday I posited that real solutions were going to be a combination of 1) default/haircut 2) Make someone else pay back the debt and 3) print money.  I have heard it argued this morning that today's announcement may be evidence of #2 (ie, US taxpayers will bail them out) or more likely #3 (since the ECB can't print money, but the Fed seems to be doing a lot of it, lets get the Fed to print more money for the Europeans .... I don't understand the mechanics well enough to pinpoint who would bear the inflationary consequences of this, but betting on the US to be the world's patsy is never a bad bet).

The Fed and Crony Capitalism

I will leave aside the issue of the recently revealed massive loans from the Fed to various banks.  It can be argued that being the provider of last resort for short-term liquidity in the banking system is a legal, even legitimate, role for the Fed.

But scan this list.  Here are some of the "banks" that got close near-interest-free money from the Fed

  • Verizon
  • Chrysler
  • Caterpillar
  • Harley-Davidson
  • Baxter International

I presume these loans were nominally for their financing arms, but what is the systematic-risk argument for backstopping manufacturer's credit operations?

When I was at McKinsey & Co, part of their relocation package was a $10,000 interest-free one year loan.  I had any number of new recruits say they did not need the loan.  I told them it was a business IQ test.  If you turned down the loan, we revoked your job offer (just kidding, of course).  I took the loan and dropped it into T-bills.

I wonder how many of these recipients really needed the money to survive or just got smart enough to claim dire need and took the money and just dropped it into something interest-bearing.

China Bubble Bursting

I don't have time today to link all the evidence, but the combination of crashing real estate markets and the Chinese government jamming liquidity into its banks tells me the China bubble is bursting as we speak.

This is an interesting test of the Austrian view of depressions vs. the Keynesian / Krugman / Thomas Friedman / MITI view of government-orchestrated prosperity.  If the latter are right, then China is doing more right to keep their economy going than any country in history and you should go invest all your money in Chinese real estate.

However, if one believes the Austrian model about government-enforced mis-allocation of capital and labor leading to bubbles and crashes; if one believes that the technocrat-beloved MITI was largely responsible for the Japanese lost decade; if one believes that the US govenrment through articially low interest rates and government-directed reductions in underwriting quality helped create the housing bubble -- then the mother of all crashes is looming in China.  Because no country has done more to reallocate resources and capital based on the whims of a few technocrats  and well-connected industrialists than has China.  After all, this is why Thomas Friedman loves China, that it does not rely on the judgement of millions of individuals to allocate capital, but instead on the finger pointing of a few at the top.

Owning Solyndra

Kevin Drum makes a pleas for liberals to, in effect, rally around Solyndra and be proud of the investment.  I am sure Republicans would give the same advice to liberals.  I want to look at a few of his arguments.

First, for libertarians like myself, the argument that Republicans did it too, or the Republicans started it, are a non-starter.  In particular, I actually thought the Obama Administration's attempt to blame Bush for Solyndra was an Onion article, since its almost a caricature of this administrations refusal to take responsibility for anything.  Unlike Republicans, I don't see this so much as an Obama failure as a government failure, and I don't really care if it is of the red or blue flavor.

Second, the fact that private investors put their own money into it is irrelevant.  Private investors poured money into Pets.com too.  Obama was pouring my money into Solyndra, and yes the fact that it is my money makes a difference.

Further, private investors put their money into Solyndra years before the taxpayer did.  It may well have been that they had a reasonable expectation at that time of investment returns.  That is their problem.  Our problem is that by the time Obama put our money into the company, it was pretty clear to everyone in the industry that Solyndra was going nowhere.

Drum and his source, Dave Roberts, attempt to argue that the drop in silicon prices and addition of low-cost solar capacity in China didn't occur until months after Obama's decision to fund Solyndra.  But that is a tortured argument.  In point of fact, everyone in the industry saw this coming - after all, the capacity Roberts describes as coming online in June was under construction months and years before that, and was known to be coming by everyone in the industry.  When I was in a global manufacturing business, we kept up with everyone's plans for capacity additions -- I can't even imagine waking up one day and saying, "huh, a bunch of capacity just opened in China."  (by the way, it is pretty typical of liberals to see prices as a given, rather than as a part of a feedback system where high prices lead to actions that might well lower prices over time).

This timeline is therefore pretty disingenuous

March 2009: The same credit committee approves the strengthened loan application. The deal passes on to DOE’s credit review board. Career staff (not political appointees) within the DOE issue a conditional commitment setting out terms for a guarantee.

June 2009: As more silicon production facilities come online while demand for PV wavers due to the economic slowdown, silicon prices start to drop. Meanwhile, the Chinese begin rapidly scaling domestic manufacturing and set a path toward dramatic, unforeseen cost reductions in PV. Between June of 2009 and August of 2011, PV prices drop more than 50%.

I am sure that this is wildly logical to a journalism major, but someone in business would laugh off the implication that what happened in June was wholly unforeseeable in March.  Want more proof?  The loan guarantee itself is proof.   Years earlier, the company attracted a billion dollars of private capital.  Now it takes a government guarantee to get capital?  And you think nothing had changed with the insider's perception of the opportunity?

A good analogy might be if I invested in Greek bonds today.  And then in 3 months the Greek government defaults and I lose all my money.  I suppose I could craft a timeline that said the default did not happen until months after my investment, but could anyone living right now say that I really had no reason on September 16, 2011 to expect a Greek default?

The real howler in the article is this one:

There was no scandal in the loan process, and there's nothing unusual about having a certain fraction of speculative programs like this fail. It's all part of the way the free market works.

First, I agree there is no scandal here if one defines scandal as something out of the norm.  Republicans want to count political coup on Democrats so they want to say this is fraudulent.  But fraudulent implies that we could find honorable technocrats who could have avoided this problem.  We can't.  This kind of failure is fundamental and inseparable from the act of government trying to pick winners, and would exist no matter what people were in place.

Second, calling this "the way free markets work" is obscene.   Free markets don't use force on investors to make them put money into certain investments.

But more importantly, government loan guarantees go only to those companies who the free market has chosen NOT to fund.  If the free market was willing to toss another half billion into Solyndra, its owners would not have been burning a path back and forth to Washington.  So by definition, every single government loan guarantee in this program is to a company or a technology that the free market, knowledgeable investors, and industry insiders have rejected as a bad investment.  For the program to work, one has to believe that Obama, Chu, and some career energy department bureaucrats have a better understanding of commercializing technologies than do private investors (who are investing with their own money) and industry experts.

Postscript:  I have to also comment on this from the timeline:

February 2011: Due to a liquidity crisis, investors provide $75 million to help restructure the loan guarantee. The DOE rightly assumed it was better to give Solyndra a fighting chance rather than liquidate the company – which was a going concern – for market value, which would have guaranteed significant losses.

The author glosses over it, but this is the $75 million I discussed the other day that dropped the US out of the senior position and guaranteed that the taxpayer would lose everything rather than only a portion of the investment

The notion of giving it more time was absurd.  Even closed with everyone laid off the company is burning a million a week in cash.  How much was it burning when open? And if it was totally clear at this point that the market had fundamentally shifted and the company could not compete, what the hell was the time going to help?  Maybe they were hoping to win the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes?  I suppose it could have been to give them time to try to sell the company, but there is no evidence any such discussions were taking place.

In fact, it is pretty clear that the US Government got played with that $75 million investment.  Any private lender who had allowed someone else to grab the senior position for a trivial investment in a company on the express train to chapter 7 would be fired immediately.

And if you want fraud, you might look at Solyndra's summer asset sales.  All the company's assets of any liquidity and value were sold over the summer to Argonaut, who also happens to be the owner of the majority state AND the company who invested $75 million in return for the senior position.  Depending on the sale price for this self-dealing, one could argue that the time the $75 million bought was merely the time needed to loot the company of any valuable assets before it went bankrupt.

Postscript #2:  I have written before about how much expertise about business tends to be claimed by liberal journalists and places like Think Progress.  I had a funny thought trying to imagine the Think Progress business school and what it would teach.  Might be a parody I need to write sometime.

Quantitative Easing: Wacky Progressive Economics or Financial Annealing?

This post is based on playing around with some analogies to try to understand quantitative easing in my own mind.  I can't decide if this approach is helpful or just wanking.  I fear it is the latter, but if we banned all banned all intellectual wanking in blogs,  my feed reader would be virtually empty.

I haven't really written much about the Fed's latest round of quantitative easing, dubbed QE2.  Basically they plan to print some significant fraction (I see different numbers in different articles) of a trillion dollars and use the newly created money to buy government bonds  (they don't actually print the money but create it out of thin air in the memory banks of computers).  As I understand it, the theory is that this will boost the price (and thus reduce yields) on the government bonds on the balance sheets of private banks.  This will in turn have two effects:  improve (at least on paper) the balance sheets of banks, hopefully making it more likely to lend; and it will reduce the yield on the bonds on their balance sheets, hopefully making private loans look like a better investment in comparison.

I am not an economist, and so won't get embroiled in issues I don't understand, but it strikes me that even if one accepts the theory of QE, it will be difficult to have any measurable impact as long as Congress  and the administration keeps generating new debt at astounding rates.

But what is really happening here is that the dollar is being devalued.  This is one of the semantic quirks that make me laugh -- when Argentina or Zimbabwe do this, its called devaluation.  When a western nation does it, it is called quantitative easing.  Because, uh, we are much smarter or something.   But I have to believe that a lot of progressives have hitched their wagon to QE2 out of the hope for some inflation (wow, the revenge of William Jennings Bryant).   Because inflation and dollar devaluation would nominally achieve some of the goals they are hoping for, including:

  • making Chinese imports more expensive, creating a wealth transfer from consumers to a few politically powerful exporters
  • re-inflating the housing bubble while devaluing long-term fixed rate mortgages, creating a wealth transfer from creditors to debtors
  • continuing the wealth transfer from average workers (who typically don't have COLA's) to government and union workers (who typically do have COLA's)
  • acts as wealth transfer from individuals to government since it creates an effective income tax rate increase, as key income levels in the tax tables, particularly where AMT kicks in, are not indexed for inflation

It is impossible to argue that devaluing a currency is a path to wealth generation.  It can't be, though progressives, as always, are willing to tolerate a total reduction of wealth as the price for the type of re-distributions discussed above.

But excepting the re-distribution arguments, it strikes me that the only possible argument for this devaluation is that the economy is somehow trapped in a local minima from which the escape energy is too high.  This would make QE a bit like annealing in a metal, where metal that is heated up and cooled too fast can be hard and brittle.  The only way to get it to be ductile is to re-heat it and then allow it to cool slower.

This is kind of a pretty comparison, but in large part it is probably BS.  The economy is way, way, way more complex and multi-variate than crystallization in a metal.  Even if we were trapped in a local minima, which by the way it is pretty much impossible to determine, we don't know what kind of energy should be applied to the system to move it out.  In fact, if we wanted to use this analogy, it would make far more sense to me to remove barriers to entrepreneurship and wealth creation which likely form a large part of the energy barrier that keeps us in such a local minima.  In fact, the annealing analogy would likely point one in the direction of decalcifying markets and increasing labor mobility rather than massive government interventionism.  It is much easier for me to argue that the missing energy is entrepreneurship rather than liquidity.  Apparently, the German finance minister agrees with me:

The American growth model, on the other hand, is in a deep crisis. The United States lived on borrowed money for too long, inflating its financial sector unnecessarily and neglecting its small and mid-sized industrial companies. "¦I seriously doubt that it makes sense to pump unlimited amounts of money into the markets. There is no lack of liquidity in the US economy, which is why I don't recognize the economic argument behind this measure. "¦The Fed's decisions bring more uncertainty to the global economy. "¦It's inconsistent for the Americans to accuse the Chinese of manipulating exchange rates and then to artificially depress the dollar exchange rate by printing money.

Update: Chinese bond rating agency downgrades US treasuries

The United States has lost its double-A credit rating with Dagong Global Credit Rating Co., Ltd., the first domestic rating agency in China, due to its new round of quantitative easing policy. Dagong Global on Tuesday downgraded the local and foreign currency long-term sovereign credit rating of the US by one level to A+ from previous AA with "negative" outlook.

Liquidity or Insolvency?

This is an update to these two posts on the Geithner toxic asset / bank bailout plan.  In those posts, we looked at a hypothetical investment with a 50/50 chance of being worth 0 or 200.  From this, we said that the expected value was 100, and looked at payout scenarios under the Geithner plan.

A number of folks wrote me that I had missed part of the point of the Geithner plan.  The original assumption of the plan was that the banking system is in a liquidity crisis, and fire sales of assets are reducing the pricing of such assets well below their expected hold-to-maturity value.  According to the Treasury white paper:

Troubled real estate-related assets, comprised of legacy loans and securities, are at the center of the problems currently impacting the U.S. financial system...The resulting need to reduce risk triggered a wide-scale deleveraging in these markets and led to fire sales. While fundamentals have surely deteriorated over the past 18-24 months, there is evidence that current prices for some legacy assets embed substantial liquidity discounts...This program should facilitate price discovery and should help, over time, to reduce the excessive liquidity discounts embedded in current legacy asset prices.

Their point is, in our example, that the asset worth 100 is only trading at, say, 50 due to a liquidity discount and the point of the plan is to make this discount go away.

This does make it clearer to me how these guys are justifying this program.   If we look at the program on the original analysis, based on expected values of assets held to maturity, we got this profile of returns:

geithner-plan1

The bank returns in the analysis were based on the alternative of hold to maturity.  It is all a zero-sum game - gains at the banks and investors come directly out the the taxpayer's pocket.

If, however, one assumes the asset is trading below expected value, say at 50, due to a liquidity discount, then Geithner can argue the banks get a higher return for the same taxpayer subsidy IF the returns are based on a base case of selling out at the fire-sale market price.

geithner-plan2

In this case, with these assumptions, we get some "free value" or a multiplier effect of the taxpayer subsidy equal to the liquidity discount.

Is this a valid way of looking at it?  Well, the first problem is that this seems like an awful lot of money to spend of taxpayer money just to eliminate a fleeting (in the grand scheme of things) liquidity discount.  Banks have a zero-subsidy alternative to achieving the same end, which is simply to hold the investments to maturity, or until the market eliminates the liquidity discount.  Those of you who own a home know that you are going to take a hit on value if you have to sell now, while the market is a flooded with homes for sale, vs. two or three years from now.  Anybody proposed lately to bail ordinary folks out of this liquidity discount?

But perhaps the more telling criticism of Geithner's assumptions come from a recent paper by a group of Harvard Business School and Princeton professors who have looked at the current market pricing of these toxic assets, and have found little or no liquidity discount.

"The analysis of this paper suggests that recent credit market prices are actually highly consistent with fundamentals. A structural framework confirms that bonds and credit derivatives should have experienced a significant repricing in 2008 as the economic outlook darkened and volatility increased. The analysis also confirms that severe mispricing existed in the structured credit tranches prior to the crisis and that a large part of the dramatic rise in spreads has been the elimination of this mispricing."

Three conclusions are drawn:

  • Many banks are now insolvent. "...many major US banks are now legitimately insolvent. This insolvency can no longer be viewed as an artifact of bank assets being marked to artificially depressed prices coming out of an illiquid market. It means that bank assets are being fairly priced at valuations that sum to less than bank liabilities."
  • Supporting markets in toxic assets has no purpose other than transfering money from taxpayers to banks. "...any taxpayer dollars allocated to supporting these markets will simply transfer wealth to the current owners of these securities."
  • We're making it worse. "...policies that attempt to prevent a widespread mark-down in the value of credit-sensitive assets are likely to only delay "“ and perhaps even worsen "“ the day of reckoning."

Update: Critics of the study argue the authors only looked at the most liquid portions of the toxic asset portfolios, thus missing the problem they claim to be studying.  From this brief critique, they seem to have a point.

Michael Rozeff looks at the paper's findings in the context of Austrian economics, and concludes that in fact, Geithner and company are delaying a recovery in lending, as bankers are frozen in a game of chicken, hoping to make things bad enough to attract government subsidies without making them so bad the institution fails before subsidies arrive.

By contrast, the Austrians, as well as other financial analysts, have argued from the outset that the basic problem is not liquidity of the financial system. The argument on the Austrian side is that the banks and other financial institutions have not been in trouble because there is not enough liquidity to buy their loans. They are in trouble because they made bad loans that are worth far less than their values as carried on the banks' books. The banks are often insolvent. Furthermore, these banks do not want to and refuse to sell these loans at the low values to get the liquid funds they want. They are playing politics. They are getting a better deal (a) by shifting some of these loans to the FED in return for Treasury securities, and (b) getting bailed out by taxpayer funds.

In the Austrian interpretation, the banks have waited while the government came up with various devices to bail them out with other people's money. The latest is the Geithner PPIP that uses an FDIC guarantee to private parties to buy the bank loans at prices above market value. In the same vein, the accounting regulatory authority known as FASB has just allowed the banks leeway not to carry these bad loans at their market value by voiding the mark-to-market rule.

Students Make $100 Financial Mistake: Very Alarming!

This story comes from the Arizona Republic as part of the general effort to maintain the ban on payday loan companies passed earlier this year (their is a proposition on the ballot in November to overturn the ban).

At least 5 percent of last year's freshmen at the University of Arizona obtained a payday loan, a figure the surveyor described as "very alarming."

Arizona's Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences conducted
the survey, which measured the financial habits of 2,172 freshmen -
about a third of the class - who enrolled in fall 2007.

Student use of payday loans
more than doubled based on a survey taken a year ago that included
freshmen through seniors, said professor Soyeon Shim, the group's
director.

"As consumers, students shouldn't be using payday loans as a resort to deal with financial stress," Shim said.

I wouldn't really recommend that students use this expensive form of ready cash, but I can't say I am particularly alarmed.  How can any of us know what pressures they are under.  In most circumstances, paying a 30% interest rate seems too high.  But I know, from personal experience, there are times when short term liquidity is so valuable you might pay anything for it  (just look - the American taxpayers are paying about a trillion dollars this year just for short-term liquidity).

In fact, if students have a bad experience, it's probably better to learn a $100 life lesson in college rather than a $500,000 life lesson later flipping condos on interest-only loans.  I personally had my own caveat emptor eye-opener with Columbia House Records in college.  Nothing like getting stuck with a couple of over-priced America albums to teach financial horse sense.  Muskrat Love... aaaarrrggghhh!

Anyway, the effort to ban payday loans altogether is one of those elitist, snobby, holier-than-thou, we're smarter than you unwashed masses issues.  Middle class homeowners who are upside down in their mortgages are not calling for inexpensive mortgages to be banned, they just want a government bailout.  The government may spend a trillion dollars in the end supporting the mortgage market.  But if poor people pay a high fee for a $100 loan, we have to ban the whole industry. 

The fact is that there is always a demand for ready cash at high interest rates, and if you drive it under ground, people just go to Tony Soprano instead. 

Oh, but you are not for banning payday loans, you just think the interest rates are too high, and that what is needed is government regulation of the rates?  Uh, OK, I'm sure that will go well.  Past government efforts to reduce the interest rate premium for risk have worked out really well *cough* mortgages *cough*. 

But, if you are still thinking that you are much smarter in money management than people who go to payday loan stores and you really want to use the coercive power of government to force poor people to make the same decisions you would, here's this:

However, for those who think they are ever so much smarter than payday
loan customers, who are charged a lot of money for small liquidity
boosts, consider this:  Let's say you take out $40 each week from an
ATM to keep you liquid and that the ATM fee is $1.50.  You are
therefore spending $1.50 or 3.75% for a one week liquidity boost of
$40, which you must again refresh next week.  Annualized, you are
effectively paying 195% to get liquid with your own money.  For this kind of vig, at least payday loan customers are getting the use of someone else's money.

Fed To Start Buying Commercial Paper

Paul Kedrosky reports:

The Federal Reserve Board on Tuesday announced the creation of the
Commercial Paper Funding Facility (CPFF), a facility that will
complement the Federal Reserve's existing credit facilities to help
provide liquidity to term funding markets. The CPFF will provide a
liquidity backstop to U.S. issuers of commercial paper through a
special purpose vehicle (SPV) that will purchase three-month unsecured
and asset-backed commercial paper directly from eligible issuers.

Kedrosky has a lot of interesting coverage of the current financial crisis.  He observes:

As Buffett has said, everyone in the world is trying to deleverage at
once -- which is unworkable -- leaving the U.S. as the only institution
in the world that can lever up at all -- and levering up it is. I just
wish it was more obvious to me how you exit the other side of programs
like this. Would we not be better off to quickly recapitalize and
backstop some banks?

I share his concerns, but I actually kind of like the idea of bringing liquidity to main street business directly, rather than indirectly by bailing out failing financial institutions.  The problem of unwinding the program is a big one.  Right now, I get the sense that the financial markets are operating almost entirely on expectations of government action -  will the Feds buy back mortgages, will the Feds keep the overnight borrowing window wide open, will the feds gaurantee commercial paper, how much commercial paper will they buy.  This latter actually seem the least bad of a lot of other options.  At least the Feds are buying good assets from good companies.

The Alternate View

Several people I know have argued with my "do nothing" approach to the current mortgage and liquidity mess.  Their argument is that the current crisis has frozen the short term money market, with banks refusing to lend to each other, and only doing so via central banks.  The problem, they claim, is that this could lead to an extended drying up of business to business credit.  For example, two people both used the fuel retailing example, arguing that inventory purchases are made on credit, and paid off as the inventory is sold.  The logic, I assume, is that businesses have all reduced their working capital, and so a drying up of short term business credit will cause the economy to lock up, with producers and retailers unable to buy components and inventory.  One such argument here.

I guess the questions are 1) for how long and 2) how best to fix it.  To the first question, this is by no means the first time in my lifetime that short-term credit has dried up.  Liquidity eventually returns, mainly because lenders need to lend as much as borrowers need to borrow.  As to the second question, central banks are currently handling this by increasing the amount of money they will lend short term.  Rather than lend to each other directly, bank A deposits with the Fed and then the Fed lends to bank B.  The cycle ends NOT when every bank is healthy but when banks and other institutions are confident they know which banks are healthy.  All the bailout is doing is delaying this reckoning.  I don't think it matters that banks and certain financial institutions survive, I think it matters that the ones who are not going to survive are identified quickly so the rest can start lending again to each other.

Given these concerns, I reiterate my position that if the government is going to inject liquidity and create new financial asset insurance programs, it makes more sense to me to do it at the point of concern, i.e. in the credit market to main street businesses, rather than dumping the money into the toxic sludge of credit default swaps. 

Shadegg on the Bailout

I missed this excellent interview with my local Congressman, John Shadegg, whom I don't always agree with but is still way better than 99% of Congress:

 

David Freddeso: Is a bailout necessary to save the economy at
this point from complete collapse "” from a major failure of multiple
institutions at the same time?

Shadegg: I think that's the most difficult question that
could be posed under these circumstances, and it's the question that I
have struggled all week to find the answer to. I have talked to a lot
of smart people who know Wall Street, know banking, know the economy
quite well, and you hear different opinions. Some will tell you that it
is absolutely essential. Quite frankly, I'm skeptical about that.

But I think that in some ways the question doesn't matter any more.
Because Secretary Paulson chose to raise the matter in the way he did "”
that is, to go public in a very high-profile way, not just with his
concern, but with a kind of Chicken-Little, the-sky-is-falling kind of
demand "” it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That is to say, once the secretary of the Treasury announces to the
world that there is a pending financial collapse, perhaps as great as
the Great Depression, and Congress must act "” he has sent a signal that
essentially tells world markets that Congress must act. I will tell you
that has been one of the most frustrating things about this since the
very beginning...

I can't tell you how many members of Congress were stunned at that
news, and were stunned that none of their local bankers were calling
them. And then they called their local bankers, as I called my local
bankers, and my local bankers said, "I think things are just fine." I
talked to one banker who said, "Gosh, we've got money, and we're
liquid, and we're making a profit. And we're in the market selling
loans, and we've got competitors trying to sell loans against us."

So, at that point, there's a disconnect. Secretary Paulson is
claiming that this is a catastrophe of generational proportions that
could go worldwide. And none of what we were hearing back home matches
that. And I'm not speaking just for myself, but also for many of my
colleagues who were making similar calls. They weren't being called by
their bankers, or by any of the businesses back home saying, "I can't
borrow any money".... If, in fact, Paulson had struck a chord with the
American banking community, wouldn't you think that after he announced
on Friday that there was a crisis of liquidity that threatens the
entire nation's financial solvency and Americans' jobs from coast to
coast, that my community bankers in Arizona wouldn't have been picking
up the phone by Monday morning, if not over the weekend, to say that "I
share the Secretary's concerns"?

 

My Alternative to the Bailout

This is taken from and expanded from the end of this post.

Everyone involved in the bailout plan says, at least publicly, that they are not trying to bail out a bunch of Wall Street folks who lived high off the risk premium of these investments but now want to avoid the costs when the actual risks become clear.  They claim to be bailing out Wall Street and various large banks because they fear that a financial meltdown and liquidity crisis will starve main street businesses of cash, and create a deep economic slowdown.

OK, if this is the real policy goal -- to maintain the ability of main street businesses to borrow -- then here is my alternative proposal:

  1. Immediately increase the SBA loan gaurantee authority by $100 billion dollars.  That is enough for a million new small business loans of $100,000 each.
  2. Authorize treasury to spend up to X hundred billion to buy rated new issues of bonds and commercial paper of US non-financial companies.  Some limits should be applied - such as the feds cannot buy any more than 30% of a single issue and/or more than 10% of the entire outstanding debt of one company.

That's the plan.  Here are the advantages:

  • The government is addressing the actual policy goal of keeping liquidity in main street business directly
  • The government is investing in success, in main street companies trying to grow, and not in failed banks and financial institutions
  • Moral hazard issues are avoided with financial institutions. 
  • The SBA loan guarantees cost nothing today.  In fact, they are cash positive in the short term due to loan guarantee payments by borrowers.  Of course, they risk future losses,  but such losses in the future are in part covered by the guarantee payments, and a future loss is cheaper than a loss today.
  • Investments in corporate bond issues are much easier to value, and are far less risky, than investments in illiquid mortgage securities.  The taxpayer is far less likely to take a beating on these purchases.
  • Banks may still fail, but the FDIC has an infrastructure and experience for handling this.  If necessary to calm people, the FDIC could make a public commitment to assisted mergers to maintain all depositors.
  • If there is some big financial meltdown, which I still doubt, there might be a need to inject some mortgage liquidity, but since the Feds now own Fannie and Freddie, the vehicle for doing so is easily available.

Update:  I was not clear -- this is actually an alternative to by alternative.  My first, preferred alternative plan is "do nothing."

Final Thoughts on the Bailout (I Still Don't Like It)

I sat this weekend and pondered the pending financial bailout.  A number of fairly smart people who know more about Wall Street than I seem to think it a necessary evil, and this includes several folks who are nearly as libertarian as I.  Is a sort of knee-jerk libertarianism preventing me from accepting a necessary step to avert economic Armageddon?

I don't think so.  By the light of day on Monday morning, I still think it a bad idea.

Here is some of my thinking (to some extent my last point is the one that is most important to me -- if we want liquidity, let's put it in the right place).

  • I am tired of businesses heading to the government bailout trough and arguing that the continued functioning not only of their industry, but of all the existing players in their industry, is critical to the health of the US economy and thus requires some sort of government subsidy/bailout/protection.  Coyote's first law of rent-seeking is that companies will always claim that failure of their business will have a disproportionately negative effect on the economy.  Coyote's first corollary to this law is that Congress usually accepts this argument at the exact point in time when it is no longer true.
  • This bailout is even more grotesque than a normal industrial bailout.  GM can be said to have honestly tried to make the right cars, and just failed.  I don't like bailing them out, because I don't particularly like diverting capital into the hands of organizations that are proven failures at using capital well.  But the financial investors that we are bailing out today knew they were taking a lot of risk by purchasing risky securities and then leveraging them up on their balance sheets.  They lived high for years off of the fat returns for taking this risk, arrogantly explaining that they made lots of money because they were smarter than everyone else and because they were being rewarded for taking on risk.  But then they come running to the government when the returns on their risky securities turned south, which just makes me sick.  They were paid for taking this risk, so take it.  I am sorry that you have no cushion because all those earlier returns are already spent on Maserati's for your mistresses, but that is what chapter 7 is for.
  • As many as 300,000 small businesses go bankrupt every year (this number is very, very hard to pin down, as it is hard to separate personal from business bankruptcy with small business).  Something like 299,998 of them do not get bailed out by the feds.  Why do the other 2 get special treatment vs. other US taxpayers?  Because they are better at lobbying Washington that they are essential?
  • Yes, the government created the Alt-A and sub-prime mortgage markets,and caused them to flourish via Fannie and Freddie aggressively asking for and buying these loans.  And the feds, via tax policy, and local governments, via zoning, helped pump up the housing bubble.  But nothing forced private companies, particularly highly leveraged institutions like banks, to load up their balance sheets with these things, or, crazily, to write insurance policies on their value.  Libertarians want to use these government interventions as an excuse for the bailout, but it doesn't wash. I do think many banks reasonably have lawsuit material against ratings agencies Moodys and S&P, which is fine.  I think new blood in that business would be a very good thing.
  • The total market capitalization of traded equities of public corporations on NYSE and NASDAQ is between $15 and $20 trillion.  That means that the first $150 billion of the bailout is equivalent to about a 1% price move on the exchanges, something that occurs almost every day.  Have we really close-coupled everything so tightly that a cumulative balance sheet hole on the order of magnitude of a 1% move on the stock market can bring down the whole financial system?  If so, we should just let the whole thing come down and rebuild itself in a more robust form.
  • Wall Streeters pat themselves on the back all the time for how creative they are financially.  So get creative here.  Create some sort of new entity and have banks contribute toxic mortgages into the entity in exchange for equity.  Find some pension funds to invest in the new entity at a deep discount.
  • These banks, who are experts in this stuff, claim they cannot value these failing, complex, illiquid mortgage packages.  OK, that may be true.  But how is the government possibly going to do any better?  Such a situation cannot possibly end well for the taxpayers. 
  • I saw folks writing in fear last week that the commercial paper market might dry up.  The commercial paper market dries up all the time.  It comes back eventually.  People treat lending markets like they are charities or something, and they fear that lenders will give up and never come back.  But they are not charities.  They serve just as much of a purpose for lenders and for borrowers.  Businesses and folks with capital need to make money on short term cash.  They are not going to stop lending forever.  Even capital markets dry up from time to time.  The IPO market has disappeared several times, including several years in the post-Internet-bubble period. The junk bond market comes and goes.
  • What is the government really worried about?  I presume that they are worried that liquidity will dry up and the ability of main street businesses to borrow will be impaired.  OK, then save the freaking $700 billion and if main street starts to have trouble borrowing, have the government participate somehow in that lending market.  Buy corporate bond issues, and/or increase the limit on SBA loan guarantees by a $100 billion  (this latter would allow a million new $100,000 SBA loans, and would actually generate money now in guarantee fees and only potentially cost money much later if the loans fail).  This way, we are investing liquidity in successful companies trying to grow rather than in failing banks that got us all into this.  Let's invest in success rather than in failure.

Thoughts on the Lehman Bankrupcy

While I am not happy to see a historic company go bankrupt, and have vague but unspecific worries about some kind of general cascading financial problem, I am happy to see the government let Lehman go bankrupt without any sort of special intervention or bailout for a number of reasons:

  • Bailouts create awful incentives for other large companies managing their risk portfolios
  • I know many small business people who have gone bankrupt, and I once lost my job in a company bankruptcy.  There is no reason Lehman equity holders and managers should be immune from the same process just because their company is large and old. 
  • Lehman's management has failed to get a positive return from the assets in their care.  A bailout only keeps these assets under the same management.  A bankruptcy puts these assets in the hands of new parties who hopefully can do a better job with them. 
  • I strongly suspect that the hole in Lehman's balance sheet from underwater assets like certain mortgages is large compared to its equity but small compared to its total assets.  If this is true, equity holders will end up with nothing, but most creditors should come out close to whole when everything is unwound.

Like Megan McArdle, I found Obama's recent reaction to the Lehman bankruptcy to be wrong-headed but unsurprising.  Obama is blaming recent financial problems on an overly laissez faire approach by GWB in general (LOL,that's funny) and a lack of strong enforcement by the SEC in particular. 

But one has to ask, what laws were not enforced?  My sense is that these are all perfectly lawful portfolios of mortgages in which the one mistake was systematically being too generous in giving out credit.  Mr. Obama's party has always been a strong advocate of pushing banks to be more generous with credit, particularly to the poor, and of promoting home ownership as a national goal.  If anything, financial institutions are struggling because they were too aggressive in these goals.  McArdle writes:

This was not some criminal activity that the Bush administration should
have been investigating more thoroughly; it was a thorough, massive, systemic
mispricing of the risk attendant on lending to people with bad credit.
(These are, mind you, the same people that five years ago the Democrats
wanted to help enjoy the many booms of homeownership.) Lehman, Bear,
Merrill and so forth did not sneakily lend these people money in the
hope of putting one over on the American taxpayer while ruining their
shareholders and getting the senior executives fired.  They got it
wrong.  Badly wrong.  So did everyone else.

It appears from further Obama statements talking about lack of enforcement for predatory lending laws that the Democrats want to get back on the rollercoaster of whipsawing banks between charges of redlining (you are not lending enough to the poor) and predatory lending (you are lending too much to the poor).

Postscript:  While in retrospect there may turn out to have been laws broken, in situations like this, particularly when a management team is trying to head off a liquidity crisis, these tend to be of the reporting and disclosure ilk.  We saw back during the Enron failure that people tend to assume law-breaking of some sort to be the cause of a major bankrupcy or collapse, and to satisfy this notion the government aggresively pursued Enron executives.  But nothing for which Enron was prosecuted had anything to do with their failure -- all the violations were about disclosure and accounting methodologies.  The company would have still crashed, probably faster, without these violations.

Update:  More here

Thinking about Jeff Skilling

I was thinking a bit about Jeff Skilling (former Enron CEO) today.  What must he be thinking as a series of large firms that were supposedly far more stable than Enron go down one after the other to liquidity crises much like that of Enron?  Bear Stearns and Lehman, two firms that should have been rock solid, go down in the blink of an eye in a credit crunch, and all we hear from the media is how the firms fell victim to larger forces beyond their control.  At least at Enron they were up-front with the market about their taking on large risks.  Now, the government is running around in the background trying to match-make these failing companies and helping to save at least a squidge of shareholder equity.  The only thing the government did in the Enron collapse was hound Skilling and others into jail.   

Sure, Skilling may have made some overly optimistic statements about his company as he was trying to stave off the crunch, but no more so that the happy-face statements issuing from Bear or Lehman in their final days.  Executives who find themselves in a credit crunch are in a nearly impossible position.  The best way they can serve equity holders is to downplay or even bury bad news to head off the looming crisis of confidence.  But if they do so, they face presecution for making false statements about the company, ironically under laws meant to protect equity holders.

Restricting Credit to the Unsophisticated -- And Are You Really Any Better?

After years of arguing that expanded credit is critical for the poor, and attacking banks for "red-lining" poor and minority districts, the liberal-left of this country has reversed directions, and has decided that the poor can't handle credit.

No matter how much folks want to paint the recent mortgage problem as some sort of fraud perptrated on homeowners, the fact of the matter is that in large part, lenders lowered their income standards and a lot of those folks now can't pay.  While we have yet to see any specific legislation beyond bailouts, it is impossible for me to imagine any reaction-regulation that does not have the consequence (intended or not) of restricting credit to the poor.

But these restrictions are not limited to the housing market.  Many states, for example, are cracking down and even outright banning payday loan companies, often the last resort (legal) credit source before people turn to the loansharks.  First in Ohio (via Mises Blog)

  If Ohio's 1,600 payday-lending stores want to continue operating past this fall, it
appears they will have to find something else to offer besides payday loans.

   A hotly debated bill that effectively would spell the end of the short-term,
high-interest payday-lending industry in Ohio sailed through the Ohio Senate yesterday despite
pleas from lenders that their stores would close and 6,000 employees would be put out of work.

   The Senate was unable to find a compromise that both satisfied payday lenders and
eliminated the debt trap that bill supporters said forced too many borrowers to take out new loans
to pay for old ones. So it did what the House did last month: dropped the hammer.

   "I think everybody said there is just no way to redeem this product. It's
fundamentally flawed," Bill Faith, a leader of the Ohio Coalition for Responsible Lending, said of
the twoweek loans. The industry "drew a line in the sand, and the legislature kicked the line aside
and said we're done with this toxic product."

And perhaps soon in Arizona.  Yes, the interest rates are astonishing, though the dollars involved are seldom huge for the short life and small size of the loan.  And, as an extra added bonus, Tony Soprano does not send someone to break your legs if you don't pay (the Sopranos being the only alternative provider once payday loan companies are illegal).

So, for those of you oppose payday loans, you are welcome to comment below about what a bad idea they are.  However, I challenge folks to criticize payday loans without simultaneously implicitly expressing disdain for the intelligence of payday loan customers, or trumpeting your ability to make better decisions for payday loan customers than they can make for themselves.

However, for those who think they are ever so much smarter than payday loan customers, who are charged a lot of money for small liquidity boosts, consider this:  Let's say you take out $40 each week from an ATM to keep you liquid and that the ATM fee is $1.50.  You are therefore spending $1.50 or 3.75% for a one week liquidity boost of $40, which you must again refresh next week.  Annualized, you are effectively paying 195% to get liquid with your own money.  For this kind of vig, at least payday loan customers are getting the use of someone else's money.

Bear Stearns & Enron

I wondered if folks would find my analogy from Bear Stearns to Enron I posted the other day stretched. 

Because Enron's demise came in exactly this sort of liquidity crisis,
and the situations are nearly entirely parallel, all the way up to and
including the CEO telling the world all is well just days before the
failure.  But no one understood Enron's business, so its failure seemed
"out of the blue" and therefore was attributed by many to fraud,
lacking any other ready explanation.   In the case of Bear Stearns, the
public was educated in advance as to the problems in their portfolio
(with mortgage loans) such that the liquidity crisis was less of a
surprise and, having ready source of blame (subprime loans) no one has
felt the need to apply the fraud tag.

Apparently, the Economist sees the same connection (via a reader):

For many people, the mere fact of Enron's collapse is evidence that
Mr Skilling and his old mentor and boss, Ken Lay, who died between his
conviction and sentencing, presided over a fraudulent house of cards.
Yet Mr Skilling has always argued that Enron's collapse largely
resulted from a loss of trust in the firm by its financial-market
counterparties, who engaged in the equivalent of a bank run. Certainly,
the amounts of money involved in the specific frauds identified at
Enron were small compared to the amount of shareholder value that was
ultimately destroyed when it plunged into bankruptcy.

Yet recent events in the financial markets add some weight to Mr
Skilling's story"”though nobody is (yet) alleging the sort of fraudulent
behaviour on Wall Street that apparently took place at Enron. The
hastily arranged purchase of Bear Stearns by JP Morgan Chase is the
result of exactly such a bank run on the bank, as Bear's counterparties
lost faith in it. This has seen the destruction of most of its roughly
$20-billion market capitalisation since January 2007. By comparison,
$65 billion was wiped out at Enron, and $190 billion at Citigroup since
May 2007, as the credit crunch turned into a crisis in capitalism.

Mr Skilling's defence team unearthed another apparent inconsistency
in Mr Fastow's testimony that resonates with today's events. As Enron
entered its death spiral, Mr Lay held a meeting to reassure employees
that the firm was still in good shape, and that its "liquidity was
strong". The composite suggested that Mr Fastow "felt [Mr Lay's
comment] was an overstatement" stemming from Mr Lay's need to "increase
public confidence" in the firm.

The original FBI notes say that Mr Fastow thought the comment
"fair". The jury found Mr Lay guilty of fraud at least partly because
it believed the government's allegations that Mr Lay knew such bullish
statements were false when he made them.

As recently as March 12th, Alan Schwartz, the chief executive of
Bear Stearns, issued a statement responding to rumours that it was in
trouble, saying that "we don't see any pressure on our liquidity, let
alone a liquidity crisis." Two days later, only an emergency credit
line arranged by the Federal Reserve was keeping the investment bank
alive. (Meanwhile, as its share price tumbled on rumours of trouble on
March 17th, Lehman Brothers issued a statement confirming that its
"liquidity is very strong.")

Although it can do nothing for Mr Lay, the fate of Bear Stearns
illustrates how fast quickly a firm's prospects can go from promising
to non-existent when counterparties lose confidence in it. The rapid
loss of market value so soon after a bullish comment from a chief
executive may, judging by one reading of Enron's experience, get
prosecutorial juices going, should the financial crisis get so bad that
the public demands locking up some prominent Wall Streeters.

The article also includes more details of exculpatory evidence that was withheld from the Skilling team and will very likely lead to a new trial.  The Enron prosecution team has not had a very good record in appeals court scrutiny of their actions at trial:

For what it is worth, prosecutors have had a tougher time in the
appeals court with Enron-related cases than in the initial jury trials.
Convictions have been overturned in a case relating to Nigerian barges
that Enron sold to Merrill Lynch. The conviction of the chief financial
officer of Enron Broadband has also been vacated, after two trials. So,
too, was the decision to convict Enron's auditor, Arthur Andersen
(albeit too late to save the venerable firm from liquidation).

Bear Stearns Roundup

My friend Scott, who actually worked for Bear Stearns years ago, sent me one of the more down to earth explanations of a liquidity trap that I have heard of late.  Imagine that you had a mortgage on your house for 50% of its current value.  Then suppose that in this alternate mortgage world, you had to renew your mortgage every week.  Most of the time, you are fine -- you still have good income and solid underlying asset values, so you get renewed with a rubber stamp.  But suppose something happens - say 9/11.  What happens if your renewal comes up on 9/12?  It is very likely that in the chaos and uncertainty of such a time, you might have trouble getting renewed.  Your income is still fine, and your asset values are fine, but you just can't get anyone to renew your loan, because they are not renewing anyone's loan until they figure out what the hell is going on in the world.

Clearly there are some very bad assets lurking on company books, as companies are still coming to terms with just how lax mortgage lending had become.  But in this context, one can argue that JP Morgan got a screaming deal, particularly with the US Government bending over and cover most of the riskiest assets.  Sigh, yet another government bailout of an institution "too big to fail."  Just once I would like to test the "too big to fail" proposition.   Why can't all those bankers take 100% losses like Enron investors or Arthur Anderson partners.  Are they really too big to fail or too politically connected to fail?

Anyway, Hit and Run has a good roundup of opinion.

Update:  I don't want to imply that everyone gets off without cost here.  The Bear Stearns investors have taken a nearly total loss - $2 a share represents a price more than 98% below where it was a year or two ago.    What I don't understand is that having bought Bear's equity for essentially zero, why an additional $30 billion guarantee was needed from the government.

Highly Leveraged Financial Companies Sometimes Fail

Bear Stearns is being bought for a price that is barely indistinguishable from zero:

Just four days after Bear Stearns Chief Executive Alan Schwartz assured
Wall Street that his company was not in trouble, he was forced on
Sunday to sell the investment bank to competitor JPMorgan Chase for a
bargain-basement price of $2 a share, or $236.2 million.

The stunning last-minute buyout was aimed at averting a Bear Stearns
bankruptcy and a spreading crisis of confidence in the global financial
system sparked by the collapse in the subprime mortgage market. Bear
Stearns was the most exposed to risky bets on the loans; it is now the
first major bank to be undone by that market's collapse.

This is what happens to a highly leveraged company when there is a liquidity crisis.  Fears about the company's health caused most lenders to withhold short term capital, which then in turn brought those fears to reality. 

While I suspect that we may find a lot of stupid blunders (at least in hindsight) and poor decisions, my sense is that this has nothing to do with fraud of any sort.  Which raises some interesting questions about Enron.  Because Enron's demise came in exactly this sort of liquidity crisis, and the situations are nearly entirely parallel, all the way up to and including the CEO telling the world all is well just days before the failure.  But no one understood Enron's business, so its failure seemed "out of the blue" and therefore was attributed by many to fraud, lacking any other ready explanation.   In the case of Bear Stearns, the public was educated in advance as to the problems in their portfolio (with mortgage loans) such that the liquidity crisis was less of a surprise and, having ready source of blame (subprime loans) no one has felt the need to apply the fraud tag.  (It also did not help that Lay and Skilling kept a higher profile than Schwartz at Bear Stearns, so that they were an easier target for vilification. 

I never really had the time to fully understand all the charges against Skilling at Enron (though I do think he deserves a new trial) but I always thought that it was unfair to try to ring either Skilling or Lay up for fraud because they were out trumpeting the health of the company shortly before its collapse.  Because it is clear from the Bear Sterns collapse that liquidity crises have everything to do with confidence, and you could see the Bear Stearns CEO out there in the last few days trying to boost confidence.  Was that fraud?  Or was that his very legitimate duty and obligation given his fiduciary responsibility to shareholders?   Why is Schwartz at Bear Stearns fighting for shareholders when he is trying to build confidence in the company in a liquidity crisis but Lay and Skilling at Enron defrauding shareholders when they were doing exactly the same thing?