Acronyms to watch for: Roubini supports Hillary's HOLC, not RTC/RFC solutions to financial crisis
[I'm leaving this sticky because I think it's still the litmus test, and because of the impassioned comment thread. --lambert]
Here's a litmus test for whatever Congress comes up with as they huddle with the finance boiz over the weekend: HOLC good, RTC/RFC bad.
I may not understand this
class warfare finance stuff, but I can sure quote people who do! Nouriel Roubini:
The most important policy action ... is rather the realization that a generalized debt and solvency problem required a solution that leads to significant debt reduction.
Let me explain in detail how we now need bold policy action to resolve this most severe financial and economic crisis…
Households in the US have too much debt (subprime, near prime, prime mortgages, home equity loans, credit cards, auto loans and student loans) while their assets (values of their homes and stocks) are plunging leading to a sharp fall in their net worth. And households are getting buried under this mountain of mounting debt and rising debt servicing burdens. Thus, a fraction of the household sector – as well as a fraction of the financial sector and a fraction of the corporate sector and of the local government sector – is insolvent and needs debt relief.
When a country (say Russia, Ecuador or Argentina) has too much debt and is insolvent it defaults and gets debt reduction and is then able to resume fast growth; when a firm is distressed with excessive debt it goes into bankruptcy court and gets debt relief that allows it to resume investment, production and growth; when a household is financially distressed it also needs debt relief to be able to have more discretionary income to spend. So any unsustainable debt problem requires debt reduction. The lack of debt relief to the distressed households is the reason why this financial crisis is becoming more severe and the economic recession - with a sharp fall now in real consumption spending – now worsening. The fiscal actions taken so far (income relief to households via tax rebates) and bailouts of distressed financial institutions (Bear Stearns creditors’ bailout, Fannie and Freddie and AIG) do not resolve the fundamental debt problem for two reasons. First, you cannot grow yourself out of a debt problem: when debt to disposable income is too high increasing the denominator with tax rebates is ineffective and only temporary; i.e. you need to reduce the nominator (the debt). Second, rescuing distressed institutions without reducing the debt problem of the borrowers does not resolve the fundamental insolvency of the debtor that limits its ability to consume and spend and thus drags the economy into a more severe economic contraction.
So of the five possible uses of fiscal policy – income relief to households (the 2008 tax rebate), rescue/bailout of financial institutions (Bears Stearns, Fannie and Freddie, AIG), purchase of assets of failed institutions (an RTC-like institution), recapitalization of undercapitalized financial institutions (an RFC-like institution), government purchase of distressed mortgages to provide debt relief to households (an HOLC-like institution) – the last option is the most important and effective to resolve this severe financial and economic crisis. During the Great Depression the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation was create to buy mortgages from bank at a discount price, reduce further the face value of such mortgages and refinance distressed homeowners into new mortgages with lower face value and lower fixed rate mortgage rates. This massive program allowed millions of households to avoid losing their homes and ending up in foreclosure. The HOLC bought mortgages for two year and managed such assets for 18 year at a relatively low fiscal cost (as the assets were bought at a discount and reducing the face value of the mortgages allowed home owners to avoid defaulting on the refinanced mortgages). A new HOLC will be the macro equivalent of creating a large “bad bank” where the bad assets of financial institutions are taken off their balance sheets and restructured/reduced; thus it will be the macro equivalent of the “bad bank” that Lehman tried to create for its bad assets.
Creating a new HOLC mechanism is likely to be more effective than creating a new RTC (whose purpose was to buy and dispose over a number of years of the assets of already failed S&Ls): we need to provide debt reduction to households well before hundreds of banks failed as working out the bad assets only after banks have failed is costly.
Bottom line: Households first, then the banks (which, in the end, turns out to be better for the banks, too).
A new government entity like the HOLC with a focus on attacking the source of the problem can serve the purpose of clearing a lot of those toxic mortgage securities from the market. We know there will not be any semblance of a normal or orderly marketplace until we have found a way to resolve these mortgage securities that are metastasizing in the bottom of our markets. By taking this paper out of the market and quarantining it in this new entity we will be able to give the market breathing room to recover.
Last spring when I called for a modern version of the HOLC, that’s the Depression-era entity that bought up old mortgages and issued new, more affordable ones in their stead, most people did not pay much attention. But I think it’s important to note that by the time the HOLC closed its books, that agency had turned a small profit and helped over a million people keep their homes. And this was 70 years ago. Our population has grown dramatically. So, obviously, if we did it right, we would be able to save a lot of homes. And I think if it is administered correctly it could be actually a net expenditure or even winner for the federal government.
Read the whole thing. It's great. It's what we should be doing.
Bottom line: Wall Street's treating Obama as if he were President right now (and that probably makes sense, though Constitutionally, I hate it). If Obama does not come out with a HOLC solution, and Harry, Nancy and the rest of 'em go for an RTC/RFC solution, we are even more totally fucked than we already are. For HOLC, we'll have to wait 'til 2012, because the other proposals just won't work.
NOTE Let's remember, too, that Hillary also, as a Senator from New York, also states as an explicit goal maintaining Manhattan as a financial center -- which is hard to do when the markets collapse. So, HOLC is not only good for the people, it saves the bankers' bacon as well. This is a classic fix for a runaway capitalist system in the FDR-mode, and shows the systems thinking that was a hallmark of the Hillary campaign (after it righted itself in February).
UPDATE As Glenn points out, and Barney Frank before him, the Paulson plan amounts to a financial dictatorship:
UPDATE: Here is the current draft for the latest plan. It's elegantly simple. The three key provisions: (1) The Treasury Secretary is authorized to buy up to $700 billion of any mortgage-related assets (so he can just transfer that amount to any corporations in exchange for their worthless or severely crippled "assets") [Sec. 6]; (2) The ceiling on the national debt is raised to $11.3 trillion to accommodate this scheme [Sec. 10]; and (3) best of all: "Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency" [Sec. 8].
Put another way, this authorizes Hank Paulson to transfer $700 billion of taxpayer money to private industry in his sole discretion, and nobody has the right or ability to review or challenge any decision he makes.
Really, it's just like Iraq, isn't it? And in Iraq, I've always thought it would have been simpler, cheaper, more humane, and far more effective simply to load C47s up with pallets of cash, and then airdrop them all over Iraq. Ditto here. Why are we giving infestment bankers the money, when they'll just send it offshore anyhow? Save people's homes, and they'll spend it right here.
UPDATE Krugman again: No deal.
It's unrealistic to imagine that I'd be able to really get enough honest information to have an informed opinion, but I spent some time thinking about what question all the Very Serious People should, at a minimum, want answered before the start cheering on pony plans. This is what I came up with:
What changed between Monday and Friday? What new information did you have at the end of the week that you did not have at the beginning of the week which caused you to go from $0 to $1 trillion?
And, no, tumbling stock prices or babble about "deteriorating credit conditions" don't count. Bernanke, Paulson, the SEC, the FDIC should have had access to a set of facts independent of day to day market turmoil. What actually changed over the week? If it was new information, what was it? If it was newly discovered information, why didn't you know it before?
Ponies? Will there be ponies?