2008 - %3, September

Bailout in Trouble?

| Wed Sep. 24, 2008 12:07 PM EDT

I'll leave the debating of its merits and flaws to others. But a Hill staffer friend writes today to say the proposed administration bailout plan or variations thereof is in far more trouble on the Hill than media coverage is reflecting.

"I'm telling you, the coverage is not reflecting how much trouble a bailout is in in Congress. The leadership wants it to happen, and maybe it will. But I think [reporters] are getting their stories from leadership, plus the White House, who all want it to happen and play down opposition. But things are ugly, the rank and file - there's just no way they are going to vote for this crap. It just seems to me the bailout is in deep, deep trouble.

"No way it's going to pass," he added in a later email. "It seems impossible. Maybe we will get lucky, we get through the election, the meltdown proceeds apace, and somebody comes up with a save that does not look like - and is not - a bailout for rich Wall Street malefactors. But that is the sine qua non."

Update: Some press reports suggest that Senate Democrats have reached a deal with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, that could be announced Thursday.

Hill friend comments, "Look, we will see, it will be very interesting. One of two things is possible, but not both: either 1) the leadership knows what it is doing, and has some reason to be confident that their plan will pass (they've done whip counts etc) .... OR 2) the leadership has disastrously failed to understand where the caucus stands, despite getting chewed out by rank and file members, they just don't realize that members are really and truly going to vote against it. And that will be an all around disaster. One can hope they know something I do not, and there will be no disaster." Can vulnerable incumbents vote for it?

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The Bailout

| Wed Sep. 24, 2008 11:48 AM EDT

THE BAILOUT....Matt Yglesias looks at the past year of economic upheaval and says:

This is why the right response to a Bush/Paulson decision that we have to "do something" would probably be to take their specific proposal, light it on fire, and then call up some people who hadn't spent the past 12 months ignoring festering problems and ask them to help you write a proposal.

This is unfair. Bernanke and Paulson have, in fact, taken tons of action over the past year. They've injected massive amounts of liquidity into the market through multiple term lending facilities, slashed the discount rate, opened up the discount window to all comers, passed a big stimulus package, and have become willing to accept everything from double-wides on up as collateral for loans. None of it worked. But even at that, they're still having trouble getting everyone on board for a systemic bailout bill. Does anyone seriously think they could have proposed something like this a year ago and gotten anything but guffaws from Congress?

On the other hand, my left-wing populist instincts are just fine with this:

If anything should be done, the case seems clear for wildly higher tax rates on high-income individuals than prevailed during the Clinton years. Are we afraid of stifling the kind of fat cat activity that's brought us to our current situation?

OK, I don't know about "wildly." But we could use a few more brackets with higher marginal rates for very high earners. The negative effect on the economy, contra modern supply side goofballism, would be about zero.

McCain, Champion Deregulator (Now in Video)

| Wed Sep. 24, 2008 11:46 AM EDT

I've been saying for days now that McCain's current pro-regulation posture flies in the face of a career's worth of deregulation-friendly positions and statements. Well, now that argument is being made in video form. Enjoy.

Davis Death Watch Begins... Now!

| Wed Sep. 24, 2008 10:23 AM EDT

A half dozen news outlets have the story today of the dirty dealing of John McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis. It appears Freddie Mac kept Davis' firm, Davis Manafort, on contract to the tune of $15,000 a month up until Freddie was bailed out by the federal government and its lobbying contracts were forcibly dissolved.

What did Davis and his firm do for Freddie? Nothing. He was kept around explicitly because of his proximity to McCain.

Newsweek explains that after Davis' arrangement with the Homeownership Alliance, a lobbying group funded by Freddie and Fannie that was headed by Davis and fought for less regulation, was nixed, Davis went to Freddie to get more cash.

Davis himself approached Freddie Mac in 2006 and asked for a new consulting arrangement that would allow his firm to continue to be paid. The arrangement was approved by Hollis McLoughlin, Freddie Mac's senior vice president for external relations, because "[Davis] was John McCain's campaign manager and it was felt you couldn't say no," said one of the sources.

It appears Davis got paid exclusively because of his connections to McCain, who was widely perceived as running for president in a few short years. He didn't do any actual work to earn the $15,000 a month. Again, Newsweek:

Freddie Mac has had no contact with Davis Manafort other than receiving monthly invoices from the firm and paying them.

The account is bolstered by the New York Times:

[Sources] said they did not recall Mr. Davis's doing much substantive work for the company in return for the money, other than to speak to a political action committee of high-ranking employees in October 2006 on the approaching midterm Congressional elections. They said Mr. Davis's firm, Davis Manafort, had been kept on the payroll because of his close ties to Mr. McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, who by 2006 was widely expected to run again for the White House.

Oh, and the Times makes sure to note:

No one at Davis Manafort other than Mr. Davis was involved in efforts on Freddie Mac's behalf, the people familiar with the arrangement said.

The fact that Davis exploited his positions within McCain's inner circle for financial gain is bad enough. But don't forget that: (1) McCain has fingered lobbyists as central players in Fannie and Freddie's failures and in the financial industry meltdown. Yet one of his top people very recently played that role. And (2) McCain was asked about Davis' work with the Homeownership Alliance in an interview Sunday and responded that Davis "has had nothing to do with it since." That's false. Either McCain was lying or Davis lied to McCain.

So... Davis gets fired when?

Obama Up By 9 Points

| Wed Sep. 24, 2008 1:08 AM EDT

OBAMA UP BY 9 POINTS....Some good news for Barack Obama:

Turmoil in the financial industry and growing pessimism about the economy have altered the shape of the presidential race, giving Democratic nominee Barack Obama the first clear lead of the general-election campaign over Republican John McCain, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News national poll.

....The poll found that, among likely voters, Obama now leads McCain by 52 percent to 43 percent. Two weeks ago, in the days immediately following the Republican National Convention, the race was essentially even, with McCain at 49 percent and Obama at 47 percent.

As a point of comparison, neither of the last two Democratic nominees — John F. Kerry in 2004 or Al Gore in 2000 — recorded support above 50 percent in a pre-election poll by the Post and ABC News.

I'll repeat my prediction from a couple of months ago: with the convention bumps out of the way, I'll bet Obama never has much less than a five point lead in the national polls for the rest of the campaign.

Forecasting the Bailout

| Wed Sep. 24, 2008 12:59 AM EDT

FORECASTING THE BAILOUT....I'm looking forward to seeing responses to this op-ed from Bill Gross of PIMCO fame:

I estimate the average price of distressed mortgages that pass from "troubled financial institutions" to the Treasury at auction will be 65 cents on the dollar, representing a loss of one-third of the original purchase price to the seller, and a prospective yield of 10 to 15 percent to the Treasury. Financed at 3 to 4 percent via the sale of Treasury bonds, the Treasury will therefore be in a position to earn a positive carry or yield spread of at least 7 to 8 percent.

....Democratic Party earmarks mandating forbearance on home mortgage foreclosures will be critical as well. If this program is successful, however, it is obvious that the free market and Wild West capitalism of recent decades will be forever changed. Future economic textbooks are likely to teach that while capitalism is the most dynamic and productive system ever conceived, it is most efficient over the long term when there is another delicate balance — between private incentive and government oversight.

Gross provides no clue about why he thinks the Treasury auction is likely to buy assets at 65 cents on the dollar, or why he thinks these assets will eventually sell for 75 or 80 cents on the dollar. And since the bailout plan would obviously help PIMCO, he has a pretty obvious personal interest in painting an optimistic picture of how well it will work.

Still, it's a number, and you can't fight something with nothing. We may now be entering a phase in which the price of entrance into the bailout punditry arena is a dueling estimate of just how well or how badly you think the bailout will turn out. Gentlemen, start your engines.

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Four Down, One to Go

| Wed Sep. 24, 2008 12:38 AM EDT

FOUR DOWN, ONE TO GO....Here's some interesting news:

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. said it will get a $5 billion investment from billionaire Warren Buffett's company, marking one of the biggest expressions of confidence in the financial system since the credit crisis intensified early this month.

....The Berkshire investment will be a big boost to Goldman. Even though the firm hasn't posted a quarterly loss since the credit crisis began, its profits have waned and its stock got hit last week. It has examined a number of options aimed at bolstering its capital position.

So let's count: Fannie and Freddie have been bailed out. Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch have been acquired. Lehman is gone. Goldman Sachs is apparently in good shape (I'm willing to take Warren Buffett's word for it, anyway). The big conglomerates (Citi, Chase, Bank of America, etc.) don't seem to be under any serious pressure.

So who does that leave? Morgan Stanley, of course. But who else? For better or worse, bailouts are usually limited to firms so big that their failure would cause systemic meltdown. So who are we planning to bail out? Little firms? Big firms that would survive regardless? Insurance companies? Hedge funds?

I'm not questioning the basic need for a rescue plan. I'm just wondering who needs rescuing right now. For more, see this post from Yves Smith, which quite plausibly argues that although a bailout may be necessary, it's not urgent after last week's intervention in the money fund market. If this argument is correct, it means we don't need to be stampeded into action. We can afford to spend some time to figure out who really needs help and what the best mechanism for helping them is.

Executive Compensation

| Tue Sep. 23, 2008 11:26 PM EDT

EXECUTIVE COMPENSATION....Should the Wall Street bailout include provisions to punish executives who were responsible for bad behavior during the housing bubble? Megan McArdle asks if this is even legal:

Here's a question: a lot of Democrats seem to want the Wall Street executives to disgorge things like their retirement packages and bonuses before cutting any deal. Can Congress do this, legally? I mean, yes, they make the law. But my understanding is that while you can grandfather in benefits, you can't retroactively punish people for behavior that was legal when committed. Can Congress reach in and retroactively void a private contract? I'm not asking for commentary on the wisdom or morality of such a move, just whether it would withstand a court challenge.

Not a chance. The Fifth Amendment prohibits the direct impairment of contracts, and Article 1 prohibits both bills of attainder and ex post facto laws. Felix Salmon adds some practical questions:

Which folks did you have in mind? The ones who ran subprime mortgage originators which have now gone bust? It'll be pretty much impossible to get money back from them. The MBS and CDO desks in investment banks? Most of them have been fired at this point, there's not much work for them any more. The senior executives at the banks? They've seen their net worth plunge along with their share prices. There might be a couple of fat-cats still around whom the government could ask to repay their bonuses. But it would be gesture politics.

Obviously this is a bummer. We can, of course, demand that executives voluntarily agree to new compensation packages going forward if they want to participate in the bailout, but even there we need to be careful. For example, John McCain, in his new role as the Scourge of Wall Street, says we should just limit all executive compensation to $400,000 or less. But who knows what that means? Does it include only direct income? Perks? Stock options? Retirement pay? Bonuses? Or is it all of the above? If it is, all that will happen is that the brightest people at these firms — which, remember, we would like to succeed since we'll all have equity stakes in them — will scurry away for more lucrative futures at small hedge funds and boutique banks. Granted, given the performance of the brightest people over the past few years, maybe we'd be better off with a few dullards instead, but be careful what you wish for.

Much better, I think, would be structural changes that reduced income for everyone in the finance industry, not just the bankrupt firms. If Democrats had a spine, that might be feasible. Under present circumstances, however, I realize it's pie in the sky. A few ritual disembowelments is probably the best we can hope for.

Rick and Freddie

| Tue Sep. 23, 2008 10:47 PM EDT

RICK AND FREDDIE....John McCain says his campaign manager, Rick Davis, hasn't worked for Freddie Mac for several years. However, according to "two people with direct knowledge of the arrangement," that's not true. In fact, his lobbying firm been receiving $15,000 from Freddie every month since 2005:

Mr. Davis's firm received the payments from the company, Freddie Mac, until it was taken over by the government this month along with Fannie Mae, the other big mortgage lender whose deteriorating finances helped precipitate the cascading problems on Wall Street, the people said.

They said they did not recall Mr. Davis's doing much substantive work for the company in return for the money, other than speak to a political action committee of high-ranking employees in October 2006 on the approaching midterm Congressional elections. They said Mr. Davis's firm, Davis & Manafort, had been kept on the payroll because of Mr. Davis's close ties to Mr. McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, who by 2006 was widely expected to run again for the White House....No one at Davis & Manafort other than Mr. Davis was involved in efforts on Freddie Mac's behalf, the people familiar with the arrangement said.

You know, I'm basically willing to concede that Fannie and Freddie were bipartisan clusterfucks and just call it even as far as the campaigns are concerned. But only if they fess up to their sins and stop regaling us with ridiculous lies about their relationships. Rick Davis either needs to tell us what his firm was doing for its $15,000 a month or else he needs to provide a plausible explanation for why his firm continued to receive that sum for doing nothing. Come on, folks.

"Palin Syrah" Wine Sales Drop Because of Sarah Palin

| Tue Sep. 23, 2008 8:01 PM EDT

To a Miller Lite-drinking, displaced Ohioan like me, wine is wine. I enjoy it—the redder and drier the better—but I don't care if it's Cabernet, Merlot, or Pinot Noir.

But my fellow San Franciscans take their wine seriously enough that the vintners' label actually means something: The owner of a wine bar in the city says sales of "Palin," a Syrah, have plummeted since John McCain tapped Sarah Palin to be his running mate:

"It was our best selling wine before (the V.P. announcement)," said Chris Tavelli, owner of Yield Wine Bar, which has offered Palin Syrah, a certified organic wine from Chile, by the glass since July. But after Sen. John McCain tagged Sarah Palin as his running mate, sales of the wine with the conservative's inverted name plummeted.

Sure, the wine's name is ironic, but it's just wine; it's not as if naming it "Palin" turns it to moose blood.