We have sometimes pointed to a paper by Nobel prize winner George Akerlof (of “markets for lemons” fame) and Paul Romer on the phenomenon of looting. Forgive us for repeating ourselves, but this paper was written in the wake of the savings and loan crisis, and was clearly ignored, because if anyone had heeded their message, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in.
Akerlof and Romer define looting as an upscale version of bankruptcy fraud, except that bankruptcy fraud gets prosecuted (in theory) but the white collar rent seeking version, where executives and staff pay and perk themselves to the point where it derails the business, somehow never is pursued in the US. From their abstract:
Our theoretical analysis shows that an economic underground can come to life if firms have an incentive to go broke for profit at society’s expense (to loot) instead of to go for broke (to gamble on success). Bankruptcy for profit will occur if poor accounting, lax regulation, or low penalties for abuse give owners an incentive to pay themselves more than their firms are worth and then default on their debt obligations.
Bankruptcy for profit occurs most commonly when a government guarantees a firm’s debt obligations. The most obvious such guarantee is deposit insurance, but governments also implicitly or explicitly guarantee the policies of insurance companies, the pension obligations of private firms, virtually all the obligations of large or influential firms. These arrangements can create a web of companies that operate under soft budget constraints. To enforce discipline and to limit opportunism by shareholders, governments make continued access to the guarantees contingent on meeting specific targets for an accounting measure of net worth. However, because net worth is typically a small fraction of total assets for the insured institutions (this, after all, is why they demand and receive the government guarantees), bankruptcy for profit can easily become a more attractive strategy for the owners than maximizing true economic values…
Unfortunately, firms covered by government guarantees are not the only ones that face severely distorted incentives. Looting can spread symbiotically to other markets, bringing to life a whole economic underworld with perverse incentives. The looters in the sector covered by the government guarantees will make trades with unaffiliated firms outside this sector, causing them to produce in a way that helps maximize the looters’ current extractions with no regard for future losses….”
Now sensible people might assume, with the government (and therefore the public at large) having been taken for a ride by issuing guarantees to people who proceeded to abuse the protection given them, that they would therefore be a lot more careful about issuing guarantees. The authorities could become more stringent about issuing them, provide for tougher oversight (including being able to restrict activities in case of violation; there should be a quid pro quo in return for the subsidy), criminalizing certain types of violations. Commonwealth countries have another remedy: directors of companies found to be “trading insolvent”, that is, continuing to operate when they cannot pay their creditors, are PERSONALLY liable.
But as Simon Johnson points out in his Baseline Scenario, with hastily enacted and often muddy rescue programs, the opportunities to loot are increasing. The public’s skepticism of these hasty and desperate measures is warranted.
From Johnson (hat tip reader Richard):
Emerging market crises are marked by an increase in tunneling – i.e., borderline legal/illegal smuggling of value out of businesses…
Boris Fyodorov, the late Russian Minister of Finance who struggled for many years against corruption and the abuse of authority, could be blunt. Confusion helps the powerful, he argued. When there are complicated government bailout schemes, multiple exchange rates, or high inflation, it is very hard to keep track of market prices and to protect the value of firms. The result, if taken to an extreme, is looting: the collapse of banks, industrial firms, and other entities because the insiders take the money (or other valuables) and run.
This is the prospect now faced by the United States.
Treasury has made it clear that they will proceed with a “mix-and-match” strategy, as advertized. And people close to the Administration tell me things along the lines of ”it will be messy” and “there is no alternative.” The people involved are convinced – and hold this almost as an unshakeable ideology – that this is the only way to bring private capital into banks.
This attempt to protect shareholders and insiders in large banks is misguided. Not only have these shareholders already been almost completely wiped out by the actions and inactions of the executives and boards in these banks (why haven’t these boards resigned?), but the government’s policy is creating toxic financial institutions that no one wants to touch either with equity investments or – increasingly – further credit.
Policy confusion is rampant. Did the government effectively sort-of nationalize Citigroup last Thursday when it said Vikram Pandit will stay on as CEO? If that wasn’t a nationalization moment (i.e., an assertion that the government is now the dominant shareholder), what legal authority does the Treasury have to decide who is and is not running a private company?
Will debtholders be forced to take losses and, if so, how much and for whom? As part of last week’s Citigroup deal, preferred shareholders – whose claims had debt-like characteristics – were pressed into converting to common stock. You may or may not like forced debt-for-equity swaps, but be aware of what the prospect of these will do to the credit market. Junior subordinated Citigroup debt (securities underlying enhanced trust preferred shares) were yesterday yielding 26%….
What do rapidly widening credit default spreads for nonbank financial entities (such as GE Capital and many insurance companies) signify? Is it something about expected behavior by the insiders or by government, or by some combination of both?
Confusion in policy breeds disorder in companies, and disorder leads to the loss of value. This is the reality of severe crises wherever they unfold; we have not yet reached the worst moment. And, of course, there are many more shocks heading our way – mostly from Europe, but also potentially from Asia.
The course of policy is set. For at least the next 18 months, we know what to expect on the banking front. Now Treasury is committed, the leadership in this area will not deviate from a pro-insider policy for large banks; they are not interested in alternative approaches (I’ve asked). The result will be further destruction of the private credit system and more recourse to relatively nontransparent actions by the Federal Reserve, with all the risks that entails.
The road to economic hell is paved with good intentions and bad banks.