Fiat and Chrysler

FIAT AND CHRYSLER....Today's news reports say that Fiat is planning to establish a "partnership" with Chrysler:

Under terms of a pact that is being hammered out, Fiat is likely to take a 35% stake in Chrysler by the middle of this year. It would have the option of increasing that to as much as 55%, these people said.

Fiat wouldn't immediately put cash into Chrysler, but would obtain its stake mainly in exchange for covering the cost of retooling a Chrysler plant to produce one or more Fiat models to be sold in the U.S., these people said. Fiat would also provide engine and transmission technology to help Chrysler introduce new, fuel-efficient small cars, they said.

My first thought when I read this was, how did Chrysler manage to find someone dumb enough to want a stake in their company? But then I read a little more closely. Fiat isn't actually buying anything. Chrysler is apparently going to fork over a 35% stake to them in return for Fiat taking over one of its factories. It's true that that 35% stake is probably worth nothing, but unless I'm reading this wrong, Fiat is basically getting the use of a Chrysler plant for free. I guess that's not a bad deal for them.

And for Chrysler? Beats me. It's hard to believe they're really all that desperate for Fiat's engine and transmission technology, but maybe it's worth it to them just to save themselves the cost of shuttering a plant. Or something. But in any case, nobody would be dumb enough to actually invest in Chrysler, would they?

Didn't know they existed, did you? They do, and in substantial numbers. They are still commonly referred to as "abed," which means "slave" in Arabic. A valuable report from CNN:

Text version here.

Waiting for Obama

WAITING FOR OBAMA....I'm waiting. You're waiting. The country is waiting. The world is waiting.

It was a moment of victory in the political cultural war that has gripped the United States since the tumultuous days of the 1960s. It came in the middle of the inauguration celebration held at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday. And its bearer was Garth Brooks. The man who has epitomized country music, the official music of Red-State America, was hailing the election of a man who represents what many people with a Red-State mentality oppose: an America that embraces liberal attitudes of diversity and tolerance, that does not equate Ivy League-style education with effete elitism, and that does not hold on to traditions to block social change and progress. True, Brooks is no rock-ribbed redneck. His 1992 song, "We Shall Be Free." essentially endorsed gay marriage. But when he performed the old Isley Brothers soul classic, "Shout," before a massive crowd of Obama supporters, you could almost hear some Red-Staters wail, "They've turned our Garth into a black guy!" When he finished, Brooks doffed his cowboy hat toward President-elect Barack Obama, who sat with his family to the side of the stage.

The show at the Lincoln Memorial contained other moments signaling that the cultural civil war that began with the civil rights crusade, the movement against the Vietnam War, and the rise of hippie-dom was done—at least for now—and that the libs had won. Toward the end of the HBO-aired event, Bruce Springsteen, once a greaser-rocker, brought out folk music hero and activist Pete Seeger, once derided by conservatives as a commie, and Seeger led the crowd in "This Land Is Your Land." This song is the liberal national anthem, written by Woody Guthrie in 1940 as a populist-minded response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," which was too rah-rah for Guthrie's liking. (Beyoncé then hit the stage and belted out "God Bless America.")

Earlier in the day, minutes before HBO threw the on-switch for its taping, gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson delivered an invocation that probably would be considered heretical by many fundamentalists. He began:

INTERNATIONAL TRADE UPDATE....The LA Times reports on the employment level of nonunion dockworkers ("casuals") at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach:

In December 2006, the last month in what became the peak year for business at the harbor, hundreds of casuals were needed every workday for jobs that the International Longshore and Warehouse Union couldn't fill. On one such day, casuals filled more than 2,000 positions over three shifts, lashing and unlashing cargo containers, driving yard equipment or assisting in clerks' offices.

In December 2008, casuals were needed just four days, and only 95 found work on the best of those days.

This is a bellwether for the collapse in international trade. Via Megan McArdle, the Telegraph reports that business is so bad that at some ports shipping charges have dropped to zero:

Shipping journal Lloyd's List said brokers in Singapore are now waiving fees for containers travelling from South China, charging only for the minimal "bunker" costs. Container fees from North Asia have dropped $200, taking them below operating cost.

....Korea's exports fell 30pc in January compared to a year earlier. Exports have slumped 42pc in Taiwan and 27pc in Japan, according to the most recent monthly data. Even China has now started to see an outright contraction in shipments, led by steel, electronics and textiles.

A report by ING yesterday said shipping activity at US ports has suddenly dived. Outbound traffic from Long Beach and Los Angeles, America's two top ports, has fallen by 18pc year-on-year, a far more serious decline than anything seen in recent recessions.

If you have anything large you need to have shipped from Singapore to here, I guess now would a good time to do it.


Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who successfully mediated peace in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s, is reportedly on the short list of candidates to become the Obama adminisitration's special envoy to the Middle East. Recent reports have indicated that Richard A. Haas, a former State Department official and current president of the Council on Foreign Relations, is also under consideration, but the Council denies Haas is up for the job.

At first glance, Mitchell may not seem the most obvious choice for the Middle East envoy job. Others have far more experience in the region, and Mitchell's success in Northern Ireland does not necessarily translate to the intractable conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. But what you may not know is that Mitchell is himself of Lebanese ancestry; his father, John Kilroy, was an Irishman adopted by a Lebanese family, and his mother was a Lebanese Maronite Christian.

More than that, Mitchell had a brief, albeit unsuccessful, run as Middle East envoy during President Bill Clinton's last-minute attempt to broker peace there before he left office. The so-called "Mitchell Commission" studied the conflict in detail for several months before releasing a report in April 2001 to the newly inaugurated Bush administration. (It's recommendations were largely ignored, as indeed was the entire Middle East peace process.)

Tick Tick Tick

TICK TICK TICK....Less than 24 hours to go! Are you excited yet?

Americans are feeling a lot of emotions right now. They're elated and apprehensive. They're hopeful and worried. According to a new poll conducted by the New York Times and CBS News, 79 percent of Americans are optimistic about the next four years (the highest such response of any of the past five incoming president), but upwards of 80 percent also feel the country is headed in the wrong direction.

For all of that, Americans dominant state of mind may be patience.

Most Americans told The Times that they did not expect real progress in improving the economy, reforming the health care system or ending the war in Iraq — three of the central promises of the Obama campaign for at least two years.
The poll found that two-thirds of respondents think the recession will last two years or longer — midway through Obama's four-year term as its 44th president.

This obviously bodes will for Obama. He's facing monumental challenges that may not be fixed or even assuaged by the time he faces reelection. If voters understand that these problems can't be fixed with a wave of a wand, he likely won't see a potentially massive dip in his popularity numbers. Another thing that bodes well for Big O: Americans appear to place blame for all the problems mentioned above on George W. Bush. He leaves office with just a 22 percent approval rating, the lowest ever in the poll.

KEVIN DRUM SMACKDOWN WATCH....In case you missed my (fascinating!) posts over the weekend about the Swedish banking crisis of the early 90s — I said nationalization was a modest part of their eventual solution, Steve Waldman disagreed — John Hempton chimes in with this: "Having long followed the Scandinavian banks (and once having spoked for 2% ownership of Nordea — the former State Bank) I can confirm that Steve Waldman is closer to the truth."

Fair enough. But although I'm not wedded to my narrative, I think that if you're interested in this subject you'll probably get a better idea of what happened by reading both of our accounts, so here they are in order: me, Steve, me again. Nickel version: the Swedish solution involved some nationalization, a systemic bank guarantee, aggressive writedowns of bad assets, and an end to the early 90s recession. All of these things played a role. (Though, as Hempton points out, this was a Nordic banking crisis, not just a Swedish one, and Norway and Finland followed different paths than Sweden did. In particular, nationalization played a larger role in Norway than in Sweden.)

On a related noted, nationalization fan Felix Salmon wants to know why I'm so cautious about the notion of nationalizing Citigroup and Bank of America — and possibly other banks as time goes by. There's a fairly long post I could write about that, but I'll spare everyone that agony for the moment. (Short version: I prefer private ownership of just about everything unless there's a really compelling reason for state ownership. So I don't want to get stampeded into nationalizing banks. I want to hear a really compelling case for why we have to do it1.) Instead, I'll just respond to something Atrios said today: "All along there's been a general unwillingness to acknowledge that the banks lost a lot of money. It isn't a problem of liquidity, or a problem of temporarily mispriced assets. The problem is that they lost a lot of fucking money."

Right. I don't think there's a person on the planet who doesn't realize this. The question is, how much fucking money have they lost? Federal regulators presumably have access to bank balance sheets, but they haven't shared their findings with me, which means I don't know how much trouble Citi and BofA are in. If they're in big trouble, but not so big that they might not be able to work themselves out of it on their own, then I'd prefer a solution that allows that to happen. If their trouble is so deep that they're just kidding themselves about their future prospects, then we nationalize. John Hempton, who argues that nationalization carries some significant costs, suggests something he calls "nationalisation after due process." Picking up on Paul Krugman's column today about a hypothetical Gothamgroup bank that's in deep trouble, he proposes something like this:

It goes to the government. Under the Bush administration the government would make a set of rules up for Gotham over a disorganised weekend. The fait-acompli would be presented before Asian markets opened.

But it does not have to be that way. The government could inject some capital into the bank as a temporary subordinated loan. A third party could then be appointed (new management — or answerable to another arm of government) to produce fair accounts for Gotham. Ten weeks should do it. At the end of ten weeks Gotham will be found to have — as a middle estimate — say $150 billion in losses — it is thus negative capital by $50 billion or a full $150 billion short of its required regulatory capital.

The management of Gotham can go to the markets. If the management can raise $100 billion (something to get it back to half capitalisation) then the shareholders keep Gotham. Sure existing shareholders might get diluted — but at least they get to have a decent go at keeping their capital stake.

If they can't or won't fund the bank in full knowledge of its position then it is nationalised. It is in that case unambiguosly not theft — shareholders had the chance to keep the bank under fairly administered rules.

What I want is extreme government action (nationalisation) but with a process to ensure that existing property rights are honoured. I want the benefits of nationalisation (that it works) without the costs (that it is seen to be arbitrary to capital providers).

This is, roughly speaking, a proposal that I like. Enforce transparency, demand an aggressive writedown of bad assets, and then allow shareholders the option of holding on. If they don't — if the bank is in such deep trouble that no one thinks it can work its way back to solvency even with government assistance — then the shareholders are wiped out and the government takes over. And no one can complain that the process was in any way unfair or unnecessary. A real-life plan might not take precisely this shape, but to answer Felix, this is roughly the kind of thing it would take to convince me that nationalization is the right approach.

1That is, I want to hear a compelling case for specific instances of nationalization (Citi and BofA in this case). The general case for nationalization is fairly well known. Among other things, you nationalize if a bank is too big to fail but in too much trouble to ever work its way back to solvency. You nationalize because it allows rapid reorganization and writedown of debts, just as in a normal bankruptcy. You nationalize because it's fair: it wipes out shareholders and provides taxpayers with an upside for their investment. You nationalize because it makes the selloff of toxic assets easier since they can be hived off and held onto for a while without having to value them first. The fundamental principle is that in a capitalist system, ownership and control of failed enterprises should reside in the hands of whoever buys up the corpse. If that's the government, then that means nationalization.

Looking Forward

LOOKING FORWARD....In a way, I'm not surprised that Barack Obama's popularity has remained strong. He's a charismatic guy in the first place, he's handled the transition with very little rancor and an apparently sincere dedication to working across the aisle, and people are naturally hopeful about a new guy coming to office when times are bad.

Still, it's pretty eye-opening that optimism is running as far ahead of past precedent as this New York Times poll shows. Tellingly, though, people are considerably more optimistic about Obama's ability to fix the economy and withdraw from Iraq than they are about his ability to fix the healthcare system. Only a bare majority thinks he'll make any serious progress at all on healthcare in his first term. I hope the American public turns out to be less than prescient in that regard.