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If debt forgiveness benefits both equity and debt holders, why do debt holders not voluntarily agree to it?
• First of all, there is a coordination problem.
Even if each individual debtholder benefits from a reduction in the face value of debt, she will benefit even more if everybody else cuts the face value of their debt and she does not. Hence, everybody waits for the other to move first, creating obvious delay.
• Second, from a debt holder point of view, a government bail-out is better.
Thus, any talk of a government bail-out reduces the debt-holders' incentives to act, making the government bail-out more necessary.
As during the Great Depression and in many debt restructurings, it makes sense in the current contingency to mandate a partial debt forgiveness or a debt-for-equity swap in the financial sector. It has the benefit of being a well-tested strategy in the private sector and it leaves the taxpayers out of the picture.
But if it is so simple, why has no expert mentioned it?
Taxing the many to benefits the few
The major players in the financial sector do not like it. It is much more appealing for the financial industry to be bailed out at taxpayers' expense than to bear their share of pain. Forcing a debt-for-equity swap or a debt-forgiveness would be no greater a violation of private property rights than a massive bailout, but it faces much stronger political opposition. The appeal of the Paulson solution is that it taxes the many and benefits the few. Since the many (we, the taxpayers) are dispersed, we cannot put up a good fight in Capitol Hill. The financial industry is well represented at all the levels. It is enough to say that for 6 of the last 13 years, the Secretary of Treasury was a Goldman Sachs alumnus. But, as financial experts, this silence is also our responsibility. Just as it is difficult to find a doctor willing to testify against another doctor in a malpractice suit, no matter how egregious the case, finance experts in both political parties are too friendly to the industry they study and work in.
Profits are private but losses are socialised?
The decisions that will be made this weekend matter not just to the prospects of the US economy in the year to come. They will shape the type of capitalism we will live in for the next fifty years. Do we want to live in a system where profits are private, but losses are socialised? Where taxpayer money is used to prop up failed firms? Or do we want to live in a system where people are held responsible for their decisions, where imprudent behavior is penalised and prudent behavior rewarded?
For somebody like me who believes strongly in the free market system, the most serious risk of the current situation is that the interest of few financiers will undermine the fundamental workings of the capitalist system. The time has come to save capitalism from the capitalists.
Luigi Zingale is Robert C. McCormack Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance at the University of Chicago and co-author of Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists. This article was originally published at VoxEU.org.