03 June 2012

In Defense of Gambling with Borrowed Chips, Part III

Still working, as I was yesterday, from the recommendations in my final chapter: I proposed that "we must learn to let the failures fail." As a closely related point, I also said that  this would involve a reform of corporate bankruptcy law. This is worth some emphasis, so I'll quote myself here:

"Well-functioning bankruptcy courts perform the vital role of allowing the assets of a failed enterprise to find new owners -- owners who will be in a better position to find their highest-return use. Unfortunately, the courts at present do not accomplish that function effectively, and this contributes sadly to the too-big-to-fail mentality."

Gravelle takes issue with me here, saying if I understand her that some institutions really are too big to fail, and that government (in association with its central bank) needs the authority to rescue them as necessary if doing otherwise "means disaster for the broader economy, as well it might."

Yet her meaning requires some cross-examination. Does she really mean that some institutions have to be rescued outside of the context of bankruptcy courts, because the latter aren't doing their jobs? Is a bankruptcy filing the sort of "failure" that sometimes cannot be allowed?


Certainly in the 1970s there was a widespread opinion that Chrysler was too big to fail. It was too big for its fate to depend upon our existing corporate bankruptcy system. Thus, in 1979, the U.S. Congress passed a loan guarantee act, which President Carter signed into law in January 1980.

Obviously, that act did not cure what ailed the US auto industry. Both Chrysler and Gemeral Motors would have to pass through the bankruptcy system nearly thirty years later, after a generation's worth of stop-gaps, hems, and haws. Would it not have been better done, when it could have been done more quickly, in 1979-80?

Bankruptcy is an important concept here because it is through bankruptcy filings and reorganizations that common-law jurisdictions re-jigger ongoing enterprises in ways that sacrifice the value of the old equity to the owners of debt. Through that process the significance of equity as the residual bearer of risk is acknowledged, and in fact (unless the process ends in liquidation) a new group of claimants become the bearer of that residual risk, the risk of the next failure.

The role of government bail-outs outside of bankruptcy is all too often to short-circuit this healthy process, diluting our core sense of what equity is, of what ownership means in the corporate context.

And ... why? To save the assets involved, so they'll continue to be of productive use? The assets of a Chrysler (or a Lehman) don't disappear when it goes into bankruptcy. Ownership may pass, over time, to the next round of owners of equity. Or (if it is feared that some of the assets are blocks of ice on a summer day -- liable to disappear entirely unless someone inherits them immediately) ownership may pass much more quickly to new owners through an auction arranged by a bankruptcy trustee.

This, after all, is what happened to the more valuable, and 'melting,' assets of Lehman. The British bank Barclays had been unable or unwilling to come to Lehman's rescue in any alternative-to-bankruptcy arrangement, but it did buy up the choice assets almost immedisately after Lehman's actual filing. Whatever was the productive capacity of those assets: that was not lost by virtue of the bankruptcy filing.

Gravelle (following Bernanke's lead in this) says that it is too simplistic to dedicate ourselves to the proposition that failures should be allowed to fail. Her solution, and his, are "regulatory changes" that will limit the moral hazards associated with bail-outs.

At their very best, if we agree to be wildly optimistic in our assessment of the ongoing or likely regulatory changes, what they'll be able to do is give us something akin to a finctioning bankruptcy system -- a way of letting the failures fail, having the equity owners take their loss, and finding someone else to carry on with the valuable assets of the failed enterprise.  Yet that very best is, as it happens, what I proposed. If the "regulatory changes" are not to work through the reforming the bankruptcy system and facilitating its operation, they'll only be (at best) a pale duplicating of a bankruptcy system elsewhere.

And really ... why duplicate? Why not fix up the original?

Or maybe it isn't about productive use of assets. Maybe, (some of you are thinking this now, surely) the real reason the Treasury and central bank need the flexibility for bailing out 2B2Fail firms is to "avert panic." But consider that for a second ... as a matter of mass psychology, do bailouts real calm the waters?

The events of 2007-08 would seem to indicate that they do not. After all, in the spring of 2008, the authorities effectively bailed out the counterparties of Bear Stearns by arranging a shotgun marriage between Bear and JPMorgan. That doesn't seem to have had any very soothing consequences. It merely stimulated traders to look for "who's next." They settled on Lehman. So a bailout at one site generally shifts panic to another.

I have not yet encountered any point of view that would make sense out of the 2B2Fail mentality. Indeed, I'm delighted to read where Gravelle complains that "a gold standard ... does not allow flexibility to manage the economy." I'm not an unequivocal advocate of a gold standard, but that contention is surely a big point in its favor for those of us who don't believe an economy should really be "managed." With a gold standard (or any other hard money system)  central bankers cannot conjure money up out of thin air, so bail-outs are much trickier to arrange. That would suggest that there will be fewer of them, and that in many more cases failures will be allowed to fail.

Still and all, I have not yet gotten to the core of my quarrel with Gravelle, and hers with me. I'm enjoying this so much that, frankly, I've been spinning it out. I do believe that money must be 'hardened' -- and I think that this may involve the repeal of existing U.S. legal tender laws and will surely have to involve the abolition of the Federal Reserve. Both of these ideas leave Gravelle aghast.

We will discuss some final points next week: Thursday and Friday.  See you there!

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.