In the last few days, virtually all mainstream financial media outlets have taken up the banner for the passage of the deeply flawed bailout bill. A bit late in the game, BreakingViews, which is insightful but hardly extreme in any of its positions, argues that the Paulson plan directs capital to where it will not do much good at a time when funding is scarce, thus exacerbating an economic contraction. Welcome Japan.
From Martin Hutchinson at BreakingViews (free subscription available):
Treasury secretary Hank Paulson’s plan uses money borrowed by the US government to buy value-impaired debt left over from the credit bubble. In a period of freely available credit, that might not matter. Good investments would get funded and, since additional money is available, some bad investments would, too. Diverting some money into unproductive uses should affect mainly those bad investments, with only modestly negative economic effects.
When money is tight, however, as it is likely to be for some time, withdrawing $700bn from the funding pool to support failed, past investments has a more serious effect on the economy, because capital flows are restricted by market illiquidity and investor trepidation. If that reduces asset prices, it exposes more loans to losses. If it prevents good investments by crowding them out of any chance of getting funding, it reduces economic activity. Either way, it makes the economy less efficient.
Herbert Hoover’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation of 1931-32, which made loans to politically connected companies, didn’t do much to alleviate the Great Depression. An equivalent amount of welfare handed out through the “Veterans’ Bonus”, which Hoover opposed, might have boosted consumption and stabilised the economy more quickly.
Japan’s 1990s infrastructure spending spree also diverted capital from more productive uses, helping to cause consumption to stagnate and the downturn to extend for 13 years. Paulson’s plan differs from both these examples in some ways, but is similar in that it may divert capital from its most productive uses. The danger is that the rescue plan could have similar consequences.