I've just listened to NPR's recent interview of Timothy Geithner. Adam Davidson did a great job of trying to get answers from Mr. Geithner. I felt sorry, at a personal level, for our Treasury Secretary, a very smart man imprisoned in a series of talking points, desperately afraid of the consequences of holding an honest conversation.
As an aside, we've come to take it for granted that policymakers ought to be circumspect for fear of provoking traumatic moves in the markets. But isn't that dumb? Markets are supposed to be about aggregating and revealing information. In what sense is it "more responsible" to hide information or ideas so that markets do not move on them? And if markets do misbehave so wildly that public officials can no longer afford to be candid because of market consequences, does that suggest an incompatibility between the kind of financial markets we have and open democracy?
Anyway. Taking for granted the constraints of the interview, what struck me most was Geithner's repeated conflation of our "financial system" and our "institutions". Mr. Geither's unspoken assumption is that fixing our financial system implies ensuring that incumbent troubled financial institutions are "strong". But that's not right. Our financial system is composed, in part, of financial institutions, but it is supposed to be larger and more robust than any specific firm. Three years ago, Mr. Geithner would have readily conceded that financial institutions are supposed to come and go, rise and fall, succeed and fail as a matter of market discipline, and that our system is made stronger by that flow of creation and destruction than it would be if some state-managed cadre of crucial banks were at its core. Of course, we all knew three years ago that some institutions had become "too big/complex/interlinked to fail", but we viewed that as unfortunate, and would have foreseen that if any of those banks got badly into trouble, the government would be forced to intervene and resolve the bank at some taxpayer cost, as it had in the case of earlier TBTF banks. Three years ago, no one would have suggested that the strength of our financial system and the strength of Citibank (NYSE:C) are inseparable.
We should not let this verbal slip go unchecked. The idea that certain large, politically connected private firms are essential to commonweal and must be supported at all costs by the state is quite the essence of "Mussolini-style Corporatism". Fixing our financial system is not the same as rescuing any one or several financial institutions. Household names can, do and should come and go in a capitalist economy, and it's pretty clear that quite a few familiar financials have failed the market test. What's good for Citibank is not what's good for America.
Did you catch this bit from Warren Buffett's letter?
Funders that have access to any sort of government guarantee – banks with FDIC-insured deposits, large entities with commercial paper now backed by the Federal Reserve, and others who are using imaginative methods (or lobbying skills) to come under the government’s umbrella – have money costs that are minimal. Conversely, highly-rated companies, such as Berkshire (NYSE:BRK.A), are experiencing borrowing costs that, in relation to Treasury rates, are at record levels. Moreover, funds are abundant for the government-guaranteed borrower but often scarce for others, no matter how creditworthy they may be.
This unprecedented “spread” in the cost of money makes it unprofitable for any lender who doesn’t enjoy government-guaranteed funds to go up against those with a favored status. Government is determining the “haves” and “have-nots.” That is why companies are rushing to convert to bank holding companies, not a course feasible for Berkshire.
Though Berkshire’s credit is pristine – we are one of only seven AAA corporations in the country – our cost of borrowing is now far higher than competitors with shaky balance sheets but government backing. At the moment, it is much better to be a financial cripple with a government guarantee than a Gibraltar without one.
"Lemon socialism" has costs beyond the direct cost to taxpayers of socializing losses. It prevents assets from being shifted from inefficient to efficient firms, and penalizes healthy, well-managed companies by forcing them to compete against subsidized competitors. I don't see how preventing healthy good banks from harvesting the organs of our megabanks "strengthens our financial system".
I think it's time to move beyond the nationalization / preprivatization debate and start talking about how to replace rather than reorganize failing firms. That doesn't mean that we would shutter all of Citi's branches. It implies having troubled banks continue to operate in a kind of run-off mode (something like Arnold Kling's #2) while the government backstops some obligations and seeks buyers for the bank's assets, operating as well as financial. In other words, it's time to move beyond nationalization and talk about state-managed liquidation.
I look forward to an America with a strong financial system. I think that's more likely in a world where Citi's logo goes all retro chic like Pan Am. Frankly, I think that's all the (non-negative) "franchise value" that's left in Citi, and several of its peers.