The Strange Death of American Capitalism: A Review of 'Bailout Nation' by Barry Ritholtz

by: Eddy Elfenbein

In The Strange Death of Liberal England, George Dangerfield famously described how the British Liberal Party—and by extension, England’s once-unshakable faith in liberalism—suddenly and unexpectedly vanished. Despite its outward appearance of solidity, once liberalism was challenged, it crumbled to dust. How could a faith that was so dominant for so long, suddenly disappear; not only die quickly—indeed with a whimper—but do so without putting up any resistance?

These are similar questions future historians will have when they look back at the first decade of twenty-first century America. At the dawn of the new millennium, America’s faith in capitalism was also unshakable. Yet, within a few short weeks in 2008, the entire edifice came crashing down. Even voting didn’t seem to matter. First under a Republican administration and then under a Democratic one, large sectors of the economy received unprecedented amounts of government support. A staggering $15 trillion of taxpayer money has been put on the line.

The American economy reached its humiliating nadir at Davos earlier this year when our fiscal profligacy was criticized by the Wen Jiabao, the premier of what was once-called Red China. Worst of all, he was right.

What Happened?

In Bailout Nation: How Greed and Easy Money Corrupted Wall Street and Shook the World Economy, Barry Ritholtz takes on that question with gusto and the result is a wonderfully engaging book. Bailout Nation describes not only what happened and what went wrong, but also why. Don’t worry, you don’t need an advanced degree in economics to follow the story. Bailout Nation manages to be both comprehensive and easy to read.

Ritholtz is already known to countless investors through his invaluable blog, The Big Picture. (Full disclose: He’s been a supporter of Crossing Wall Street from its earliest days.) I have to confess to having some initial reservations about Ritholtz’s book. What makes him a great blogger, I feared, might not transfer well to a 300-page sustained argument. Let’s just say that Ritholtz isn’t exactly a “shades of gray” kind of guy. When a rapier is needed, Ritholtz is fully willing to use a cluster bomb. If you don’t think it’s possible to get a true sense of moral outrage over, say, the latest BLS report, haven’t read The Big Picture.

Fortunately, my fears were unfounded. Ritholtz does very well in book form. His editor, Aaron Task, served him well; the prose is compact and well-organized, though I’m fairly certain of the sentences where Ritholtz shook off all editorial changes. Where Ritholtz truly shines is in drawing connections between seemingly dispirit events; the fall of Bear Stearns, oleaginous mortgage brokers, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the growth of credit default swaps, even the effects of reforming the Consumer Price Index, all play a role in this complex mess of unintended consequences, vicious cycles, ideological blindness and abject stupidity. I can't remember the last time I had so much fun reading about the Apocalypse

There are, however, a few minor errors. The Jefferson quote, “Banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies” (page 15) is probably bogus. Also, on page 96, Ritholtz writes, “the psychological impact that feeling financially flush has on spending cannot be underestimated.” He surely means overestimated. These errors are minor of course, and it may be a reflection of covering events in real time.

Even before its release, Bailout Nation itself became a news story. In February, McGraw-Hill (MHP), the originally publisher, announced that it was ditching the project. Ritholtz claimed it was due to his criticisms of the Wall Street ratings agencies (McGraw-Hill owns Standard & Poor’s). McGraw-Hill denied this although curiously, the editor Ritholtz had been working with, resigned one week later. Fortunately, John Willey & Sons picked up the project and brought it to life (or, if you prefer, bailed it out).

Lockheed Was the Original Sin

So how did we end up where we are? Ritholtz persuasively makes the case that we didn’t suddenly abandon our capitalist faith. Instead, he argues that our fondness for bailouts isn’t new. Ritholtz pinpoints our original sin in the 1971 bailout of Lockheed (NYSE:LMT). By today’s standard, that bailout was laughably small—just $250 million.

The important point is that a new standard had been established, and the government and Corporate America responded accordingly. Soon, bailouts became like a narcotic. Our fixes could only be satiated by steadily larger rescues. Soon Penn Central received a bailout, followed by Chrysler a few years later, then Continental Illinois (which ironically found itself in the hands of Bank of America (NYSE:BAC)).

Ritholtz agues that the bailouts, even when successful in the short-term, do considerable long-term damage. After the Chrysler bailout, for example, the already somnolent auto industry grew even more complacent. Ritholtz considers an alternative history: What if Chrysler had been allowed to fail? Might Detroit have reformed itself? We’ll never know because as the public became slowly inured to these bailouts, they were free to grow larger.

Ritholtz expands his argument by adding the machinations of the Federal Reserve to the growing bailout trend. This is a crucial point because too few observers see the motives behind the central bank. Any good story needs a top-notch villain and in Bailout Nation, it’s a certain Randian jazz musician named Alan Greenspan.

The Mess That Greenspan Made

Ritholtz doesn’t suffer fools gladly and Greenspan gets a well-deserved skewering.
Ritholtz tracks how Greenspan purposely and quite clearly altered the Fed’s mandate to include supporting asset prices. The facts Ritholtz presents are strong. The Fed-orchestrated bailout of LTCM had a profound effect on Wall Street’s risk-taking mentality. Whenever the market tumbled, Greenspan jumped into cut rates. Bubbles, however, in tech stocks and later in housing were allowed to grow unchecked.

According to Ritholtz, it was Dr. Greenspan’s tonic of absurdly low interest rates that led to an historic housing bubble and all the unpleasantness that followed. The effect was far more damaging than easy money.

Ritholtz stresses that the Fed’s policies changed the rules of the game. For example, the bond market was now forced into a reckless “scramble for yields.” This in turn fed the practice of securitization which, in turned, fueled the disgraceful behavior of the ratings agencies. When yields were low, mischievous behavior flourished. At each juncture, the dots connect back to Greenspan who even disregarded his fellow members of the Federal Open Market Committee.

Incidentally, the section on ratings agencies (pages 111 to 113) is hardly controversial. Ritholtz simply states what’s widely known, that the ratings practiced a form of payola. There’s no other way to say it—the agencies abandoned their professional and moral obligations.

Real Capitalists Nationalize

As for the debt crisis, Ritholtz writes, “From 1 million B.C. up until the present day, the ability to repay the debt has always been the dominant factor—except, however, for a brief five-year period starting around 2002.” It’s sadly true. One strawberry picker in California got a $720,000 loan despite his annual income of $14,000. The system morphed into capitalism without capital.

Technically, the bubble wasn’t in housing, it was in credit. The numbers are staggering. At one point, close to half of all the new jobs created were tied to real estate. Between 2003 and 2006, 75% of GDP growth was solely due to mortgage equity withdrawals. From December 2006 to December 2007, the notional amounts outstanding of credit fault swaps more than quadrupled from $14 trillion to $58 trillion.

Bailout Nation is quick-paced and Ritholtz sprinkles the test with illuminating charts and eye-catching statistics (i.e., Bear Stearns’ liquidity pool dropped by 90% in three days). He wryly notes that it you want to play the bailout game, make sure you do it first and do it big. Ritholtz also has a novel theory for the explosion in executive compensation on Wall Street, but I won’t spoil it for you here.

Characteristicly, Ritholtz isn’t shy about naming names. In Chapter 19, he lists the folks most at fault for the credit mess. It won’t surprise you that Greenspan tops the list. Personally, I think the "savings glut" deserves more attention. Chapter 20 is an interesting take-down of the phony causes of our troubles, like naked shorting and the Community Reinvestment Act.

I should add that Ritholtz is an equal opportunity critic. Many liberals won’t be pleased by his criticisms of bailouts and his dismal of systemic risk (or more accurately, the threat of systemic risk). Parts of the book could have been written by Milton Friedman. Ritholtz even repeats Friedman’s famous mantra, “there is no free lunch.” Plus, any book with a chapter titled, “The Virtues of Foreclosure,” isn’t about to win a Bleeding Heart of the Year award.

Conservatives will certainly take issue with Ritholtz’s criticisms of financial deregulation and his call for therapeutic nationalization. What I find most disturbing is how much of the government’s behavior was simply arbitrary. Ritholtz makes it clear: They were just making it up as they went along.

Ritholtz favors temporarily nationalizing insolvent banks. Mind you, this ain’t exactly Pol Pot. Ritholtz merely wants bad banks taken out, cleaned up and restored to health. He believes it’s the solution that will cause the least damage (“real capitalists nationalize”). I think he’s on sound footing here. It’s odd that we can watch Citigroup (NYSE:C) fall from $57 to 97 cents, yet bringing it that last bit to $0 is somehow unacceptable. Ritholtz concludes, "Real capitalists nationalize; faux capitalists look for the free lunch."

At the beginning of The Strange Death of Liberal England, Dangerfield wrote of the Liberal’s final triumph, “From that victory they never recovered.” Let’s hope American capitalism doesn’t share their fate.