Kevin Drum

Yet More on AIG

| Mon Mar. 9, 2009 7:09 PM EDT
Here's an odd new twist on the AIG situation.  ABC News has gotten hold of a memo AIG wrote a few days ago arguing that the Treasury needed to provide it with additional bailout funds because a failure of the company "would cause turmoil in the U.S. economy and global markets, and have multiple and potentially catastrophic unforeseen consequences."

No surprise there.  It might even be true.  But what's odd is where they say the problem is centered.  Not in AIG's high-flying CDS business, with all those counterparties demanding their billions of dollars in payouts, but in the stodgy old life insurance business:

The systemic risk is principally centered in the “life insurance” business because it is this subsector that has the greatest variety of investments and obligations that are subject to loss of value of the underlying investments....Over the past decade, the voluntary termination rate on individual policies declined remarkably (to six percent by 2007) as consumers could obtain liquidity from numerous other sources.

A significant rise in surrender rates — inspired by consumers’ needs for cash or because of rumored or real failure of insurance companies — could be disastrous. Because of widespread loss of liquidity, the industry would struggle to raise adequate cash to meet surrender requests. A “run on the bank” in the life and retirement business would have sweeping impacts across the economy in the U.S....State insurance guarantee funds would be quickly dissipated, leading to even greater runs on the insurance industry.

The claim here is that a weak economy has already left strapped consumers with fewer places to obtain traditional loans, which in turn means that people are increasingly likely to cash in their life insurance policies in order to scrounge up a bit of ready cash.  That's bad enough, but if AIG were to fail — or if there were even a rumor of failure — everyone would start lining up to cash in their policies at once.  This would cause a panic and customers of other insurance companies would start lining up too.  Since reserves aren't big enough to pay off everyone at once, this would cause massive, cascading failures in the entire life insurance business.

There's plenty more in the memo about the global catastrophe that would accompany an AIG failure, but it's mainly in bullet points and doesn't provide much backup for their claims.  So I don't have any good way to judge whether or not it's true.

But the life insurance claim is a new one on me, so I thought it was worth passing along.  I'll be very interested indeed to hear the reaction to AIG's "run on the bank" claim from people with experience in the business.

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Bailing Out the Counterparties

| Mon Mar. 9, 2009 6:24 PM EDT
As we all know by now, AIG wrote hundreds of billions of dollars worth of credit default swaps that it now has to make good on.  And since the U.S. government has bailed out AIG to the tune of $150 billion or so, that means that taxpayer cash is being used to pay off a lot of those bad bets.

But do we really want our money being used to pay off AIG's clients?  Maybe not, says Noam Scheiber:

As the Journal notes, the payments arise because AIG has to post collateral every time the bonds it insured take a hit....That's scary, because as the economy continues to deteriorate, all those bonds AIG insured are going to keep deteriorating, too, and AIG will have to keep posting collateral. Which means the taxpayer, assuming we don't let AIG collapse, is going to have to keep forking over cash.

It does seem like it's time to start triaging here. That is, the government needs to start figuring out which financial institutions can afford to get stiffed by AIG (by which I mean which ones won't go under if they get stiffed), and start stiffing them. You obviously want to do it in a careful and orderly way so as not to freak out the financial markets.

I'm open to persuasion here, but this actually sounds like the worst possible way to address the counterparty problem.  Our dilemma, as Scheiber implies, is that if AIG's counterparties don't get paid, some of them might go under themselves, and then we end up with a cascade of bankruptcies.  But his solution is a cure worse than the disease.  Do we really want the U.S. government deciding that certain counterparties get paid and others don't, and doing it on the fairly arbitrary basis of stiffing the ones it thinks can best afford to be stiffed?

Not only does this send precisely the wrong signal — if you managed your investments well you're first in line to get shafted — but it's practically guaranteed to be unfair.  Do U.S. counterparties get preference over foreign counterparties?  Does payment depend on who fibs the best about their financial condition?  Do we really want to prop up our worst banks in such an opaque fashion?  If we're going to do that, shouldn't we just do it honestly and either give them money outright or else nationalize them?

A better way, surely, would be to figure out a way to pay off creditors based on class.  The most senior can expect 90 cents on the dollar, others will get 80 cents, and some will get nothing.  Or maybe everyone gets paid off in full.  But in any case, everyone in each class gets the same deal.  This is a system everyone is used to from ordinary bankruptcy proceedings, and it's generally viewed as fair and equitable.  Surely that's the way to go if you don't want to freak out the financial markets.

The Fine Print

| Mon Mar. 9, 2009 1:21 PM EDT
Is AHIP, a health insurance trade group, really in favor of universal healthcare?  They say they've had a change of heart and now support the idea, but Michael Hiltzik is skeptical:

As a connoisseur of health insurance lobbying practices, however, I withheld judgment until I could scan the fine print. What I found by reading AHIP’s 16-page policy brochure was that its position hadn't changed at all. Its version of "reform" comprises the same wish list that the industry has been pushing for decades.

Briefly, the industry wants the government to assume the cost of treating the sickest, and therefore most expensive, Americans. It wants the government to clamp down hard on doctors' and hospitals' fees. And it wants permission to offer stripped-down, low-benefit policies freed from pesky state regulations limiting their premiums.

As for universal coverage, which is the goal of many reformers (if not yet the Obama administration), the industry will accept a government mandate to take on all customers, as long as all Americans are required by law to buy coverage.

Who wouldn't love a deal like that?  Just like Coca-Cola would be delighted with a government mandate that it sell cans of Coke to all comers in return for a government law requiring everyone to buy cans of Coke.  Ka-ching!

But Ron Brownstein says that AHIP's members might be willing to compromise here, promising not only to insure all comers, but to do it at a fair price.  Not the exact same price for everyone, but close:

[AHIP's Karen Ignani] suggested an arrangement in which insurers and the government in effect would divide the cost of insuring the biggest risks through a combination of rating reform and public subsidies. "You have to think about the ratings and the subsidy in tandem," she argued. For instance, she noted, a pure form of community rating — in which everyone is charged the same premium regardless of their age or health status — would substantially increase rates on young healthy families (while reducing them on older or sicker people). In that instance, "you might decide well then we could subsidize those [young] individuals to cushion that," she said. Alternately, she said, you might allow insurers to vary rates somewhat based on age, but use subsidies to ensure that say, "nobody over 55 would have to pay more than 10 per cent of income" for premiums — as California did in its reform. More details on the issue are coming: "You will hear a great deal from us soon about rating," she said.

This all comes via Ezra Klein, who thinks it's quite possible that insurers are serious about this.  Unfortunately, he also argues that this is the easy part of a healthcare deal: the hard part is dealing with pharma, doctors, and hospitals.  Details here.

The Great Recession

| Mon Mar. 9, 2009 12:31 PM EDT
From the World Bank:

The global economy is likely to shrink this year for the first time since World War Two, with growth at least 5 percentage points below potential. World Bank forecasts show that global industrial production by the middle of 2009 could be as much as 15 percent lower than levels in 2008. World trade is on track in 2009 to record its largest decline in 80 years, with the sharpest losses in East Asia.

The Republican response to this, apparently, is that the U.S. government should "go on a diet."  Words fail.

The Contagion Effect

| Mon Mar. 9, 2009 11:49 AM EDT
One of Ezra Klein's readers argues that there are some practical problems to nationalization that its supporters haven't addressed.  One of them is the contagion effect:

Take JPMorgan Chase, for example....It continues to operate from a position of relative strength, meeting capital requirements, and it still has a significant market capitalization. Yet it has also taken TARP money. Should JPMorgan Chase be nationalized in this scenario? If you say yes, why?....And what do you do when you seize JPMorgan Chase? Do you keep management, which did better than just about anybody else? Or get rid of them? Do you really think you’re going to find a better CEO than Jamie Dimon?

....And if you say no, let them stay private, consider the fate of this bank if other large banks are nationalized. Investors would flee the stock, fearing it was next. Short sellers would pummel the stock. The company would face a difficult time raising capital. Business customers would flee to government-owned banks. It would be, as Blinder argues, just a matter of time.

This is a real issue, but there's also a fairly straightforward answer: do all the nationalizations at once.  The Treasury Department is already moving ahead with its "stress tests" of large banks, and if they chose to, these tests could be used to decide which banks need to be nationalized and which ones don't.  Then, once the tests are done, the findings are announced at a stroke.  Banks A, B, and C are being taken over.  Everyone else gets a clean bill of health.

If anything, this would help banks like JPMorgan (assuming they passed the stress test, of course).  After all, investors are fleeing bank stocks already, and a firm statement of who's healthy and who's not would give investors some basis for thinking that the healthy banks really are healthy and aren't going to be taken over.  Business customers would also be reassured, and the Fed has made money so cheap, and set up so many term lending facilities in the past year, that non-nationalized banks would almost certainly compete on an equal footing with the banks that are government owned.  That's how it worked in Sweden, where two banks were nationalized during their banking crisis without bringing down the others.

There are plenty of technical and operational issues with nationalizing gigantic banks, but the contagion argument strikes me as one that can be addressed fairly effectively.  If the tests are seen as fair, and the results are announced all at once, the system will not only survive, it's likely to be strengthened.

Withdrawing from Iraq

| Mon Mar. 9, 2009 1:41 AM EDT
We are finally starting to get out of Iraq:

The U.S. will reduce its military presence in Iraq by 12,000 troops over the next six months as part of the first major drawdown since President Obama announced his plan to end combat operations in the country next year, U.S. military officials in Baghdad said Sunday.

....The plan calls for the number of U.S. Brigade Combat Teams to drop from 14 to 12. Two brigade teams that had been scheduled to redeploy in the next six months will not be replaced. A British brigade will also leave Iraq without being replaced, taking the final British combat troops out of Iraq.

When the American move is completed, it would reduce the U.S. military presence in Iraq to about 128,000 troops, dipping for the first time below the number of troops in the country before then-President Bush ordered the buildup he referred to as the "surge" in 2007.

It's only a start.  And it's not a big one.  But it's still an important milestone as well as the partial fulfillment of a campaign promise, and I didn't want it to pass without at least noting it.

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Maintaining the Banks

| Sun Mar. 8, 2009 8:07 PM EDT
Atrios sez:

I know I'll make this point a billion times before this is all over, but there's a difference between thinking that well run financial intermediaries (which, in theory, competition will create) are necessary for a modern economy and believing that the semi-oligopolistic system of financial intermediaries which have demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that they're at best incompetent and most likely some combination of incompetent and incredibly corrupt should be maintained at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars (optimistically) in taxpayer money.

I don't really get this.  Aside from the nitpicky point that the United States actually has one of the least oligopolistic banking sectors in the developed world, what's being argued here?  That we should let the existing banks fail?  That we should temporarily nationalize them?  Which ones?  And if we do, how should we treat all their creditors and counterparties?  That's the big question (not whether shareholders should get wiped out — of course they should, but they're mostly wiped out already), and it doesn't go away just because we nationalize TitanoBank instead of shoveling cash down its gaping maw in return for preferred shares.  In fact, it makes the question even more salient, since in a post-nationalization world Uncle Sam would be legally on the hook for all those claims.

As for the cost of all this, we might as well suck it up.  We're way beyond the point of thinking we'll get out of this mess without spending a trainload of taxpayer dough one way or another.  This debacle is going to cost us hundreds of billions of dollars no matter what we do.

And when it's over, guess what?  Pretty much all the same people will be in charge.  A few senior executives will be out of jobs, but that's about it.  And the ones who replace them won't be much different.  The fact is that these people did what they did not because they're stupid, but because the system practically begged them to act the way they did.  That's what's broken, and fixing it depends mostly on what kind of new financial regulations we put in place going forward.  I guess we're still in firefighting mode and don't have time to address that right at the moment, but I'd sure like to start hearing more about it sometime soon.  In the long run, figuring out an effective way to regulate leverage, wherever and however it appears, is probably a lot more important than deciding which bureaucratic solution we should use to clean up the corpses currently littering the battlefield.

Let God Sort 'Em Out

| Sun Mar. 8, 2009 6:38 PM EDT
Richard Shelby (R–AL), the ranking minority member of the Senate Banking Committee, doesn't want to nationalize ailing big banks like Citigroup.  He thinks we should just shut them down, like we do with smaller banks.  Josh Marshall comments:

Something like this is both heartening and insanely distressing at the same time because what exactly does he think people are talking about when people talk about nationalization? They're talking about some form of FDIC-like takeover, though probably one that would take longer and be much more complicated since you simply can't find another bank that is going to buy or most of its assets at some knock-down price over the weekend — certainly not in the present climate. You either clean the bank up (which would require what amounts to a de facto bankruptcy proceeding) and sell it back into private hands or break it up and sell it off in individual pieces — likely some combination of the two.

This is worth unpacking a little bit.  The FDIC is not set up to run distressed banks.  It's set up to either (a) sell them off immediately to another bank or (b) hold onto them just long enough to liquidate everything.  And the FDIC is really, really not set up to run a big money center bank like Citigroup, which is both a normal depository institution plus a fantastic agglomeration of other financial entities, including derivatives underwriting, asset management, private equity portfolios, a staggering variety of trading operations spread all over the world, and one of the world’s biggest insurance companies.  This is not FDIC territory.

Selling off Citigroup is also not an option.  Who's big enough to buy them?  Nobody.  What's more, their stock is currently selling for about buck a share.  There are thousands of rich investors who could buy the whole place, lock stock and barrel, anytime they wanted to.  But no one wants to.  There's a reason, after all, that huge chunks of the stuff on Citi's balance sheet is called toxic waste.

So: the FDIC can't run Citigroup and nobody in their right mind wants to buy them.  On the other hand, with Citi's stock hovering around a dollar, their shareholders have already lost nearly their entire investment.  Allowing Citi to fail would hardly cause them any more damage than they've already suffered.  So why not just let them go under, as Shelby wants?

The answer is that we could do this.  This was the gamble Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulson took last September when they allowed Lehman Brothers to fail — dammit, it's time to enforce some market discipline on these guys! — and their gamble failed spectacularly.  The global financial system nearly collapsed even though Lehman wasn't all that big.

But hey — maybe Lehman taught everyone a lesson.  Maybe all of Citgroup's creditors and counterparties have already priced in the possibility of default.  You never know.  And maybe if Citigroup fails, and they all end up with a bunch of worthless notes, they'll just shrug and go about their business.

Then again, maybe not.  Maybe Citigroup really is too big to fail.  And maybe if they fail, and all their creditors and noteholders and counterparties are stiffed, maybe they'll all fail too.  And then all of their creditors and noteholders and counterparties will also fail.  Etc.  And then it's back to the dark ages for all of us.

Which is it?  I don't know.  All I can say is: Richard Shelby has way bigger balls than I do.  Call me a wuss if you must, but I'm really not willing to gamble on nuclear meltdown, especially since I think the odds are pretty strongly in favor of Citigroup having the ability to take all the rest of us down with them if they collapse.  Shelby, however, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Banking Committee, guardian of the nation's financial health, is apparently willing to just say "fuck it," roll the dice, and hope against hope for snake eyes.

Of course, this is precisely the kind of imbecilic, high-stakes gambling that got us into this mess in the first place.  Maybe Shelby ought to think twice before deciding that the hair of the dog might get us out.

Quote of the Day - 03.08.09

| Sun Mar. 8, 2009 5:13 PM EDT
From Michael Lewis, writing about the epic implosion of the Icelandic banking bubble:

After three days in Reykjavík, I receive, more or less out of the blue, two phone calls. The first is from a producer of a leading current-events TV show. All of Iceland watches her show, she says, then asks if I’d come on and be interviewed. “About what?” I ask. “We’d like you to explain our financial crisis,” she says. “I’ve only been here three days!” I say. It doesn’t matter, she says, as no one in Iceland understands what’s happened. They’d enjoy hearing someone try to explain it, even if that person didn’t have any idea what he was talking about — which goes to show, I suppose, that not everything in Iceland is different from other places.

If you haven't already, you should read the rest.  Or, at the very least, search down to this passage and then read from there.

Oh, and one other thing: this is not actually a story about financial collape.  It's a story about gender roles.  Consider yourself forewarned.

Movie vs. Maxi Series

| Sun Mar. 8, 2009 1:41 PM EDT
Matt Yglesias saw Watchmen last night and says:

All-in-all, I’m torn between immense admiration for the film and regret that it was done as a movie at all. In retrospect, I kind of wish we’d instead gotten a 12 part HBO maxi-series that was really uncompromising and didn’t leave anything out.

You could think that about a lot of movies, couldn't you? And I have! Which is a little odd since I don't subscribe to HBO and wouldn't get to see any of these maxi-series ideas if they actually got made.

Watchmen, of course, would present a challenge here. At least I think it would. The problem is that the original chapters are pretty self-contained and it really would make sense to keep them that way. So, one episode per chapter. Unfortunately, that would require a fair amount of padding. Most of the chapters just don't have enough substance to take up an hour of screen time.

So a movie it is. I haven't seen it yet, so I have no comment on how it turned out. But I'm looking forward to it even though the reviews so far have been pretty lukewarm. I don't think I'll be buying a Rorschach doll any time soon, though.