The first thing to note about the financial crisis is that the federal government never had any business intervening in the personal decision of whether you want to own a home. There is no rational economic argument, or any argument I know of, that says the market of buying and selling homes is imperfect in some way, requiring government action. Construction firms have plenty of incentive to build homes and sell them. People who have the wherewithal have plenty of incentive to buy homes if they so choose. For the government to intrude into homeownership was an off-budget, nontransparent, backdoor attempt at redistributing income. And when the policy became a way of transferring income to people who couldn’t afford those homes, it was doomed to failure.
This provision of risky debt to low-income homeowners was exacerbated by a second misguided federal policy: the longstanding practice of bailing out private risk taking. Although this has gone on for decades in the U.S. and other countries, the Federal Reserve played a special role during the tenure of former chief Alan Greenspan. The Fed’s implicit and almost explicit policy before the housing crash was to say to the financial markets: “Don’t worry about the fact that there’s a bubble. We’ll lower interest rates and keep them low enough to prevent a collapse in asset prices.” This logic, broadly applied, was commonly called the Greenspan Put. The Federal Reserve was basically selling the market an option for getting out comparatively unscathed when things turned bad. The result has been a widely held assumption that market actors would not have to bear the full losses from their own risky behavior.
When people try to pin the blame for the financial crisis on the introduction of derivatives, or the increase in securitization, or the failure of ratings agencies, it’s important to remember that the magnitude of both boom and bust was increased exponentially because of the notion in the back of everyone’s mind that if things went badly, the government would bail us out. And in fact, that is what the federal government has done. But before critiquing this series of interventions, perhaps we should ask what the alternative was. Lots of people talk as if there was no option other than bailing out financial institutions. But you always have a choice. You may not like the other choices, but you always have a choice. We could have, for example, done nothing.
Unfair in the Short Term, Inappropriate in the Long Term
By doing nothing, I mean we could have done nothing new. Existing policies were available, which means bankruptcy or, in the case of banks, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation receivership. Some sort of orderly, temporary control of a failing institution for the purpose of either selling off the assets and liquidating them, or, preferably, zeroing out the equity holders, giving the creditors a haircut and making them the new equity holders. Similarly, a bankruptcy or receivership proceeding might sell the institution to some player in the private sector willing to own it for some price.
With that method, taxpayer funds are generally unneeded, or at least needed to a much smaller extent than with the bailout approach. In weighing bankruptcy vs. bailouts, it’s useful to look at the problem from three perspectives: in terms of income distribution, long-run efficiency, and short-term efficiency.
From the distributional perspective, the choice is a no-brainer. Bailouts took money from the taxpayers and gave it to banks that willingly, knowingly, and repeatedly took huge amounts of risk, hoping they’d get bailed out by everyone else. It clearly was an unfair transfer of funds. Under bankruptcy, on the other hand, the people who take most or even all of the loss are the equity holders and creditors of these institutions. This is appropriate, because these are the stakeholders who win on the upside when there’s money to be made. Distributionally, we clearly did the wrong thing.
From the perspective of long-run efficiency, the question is also relatively straightforward. By the end of 2005, it should have been apparent that the U.S. economy was fundamentally misaligned. We had significantly overinvested in housing and significantly underinvested in factories, plants, and equipment. In effect, we needed a recession: a period to readjust the balance between the different types of capital.
More broadly, failure is an essential aspect of free markets. Failure shows capitalism is working, because it means resources are moving from bad uses to good uses.
There are other long-term problems with the bailout approach. Bailouts create moral hazards going forward, meaning market players will be more inclined to take excessive risks. Bailouts encourage inappropriate goals, such as propping up insolvent banks. Bailouts give the government ownership stakes in these institutions, which means that politics, not economics, is going to decide where these firms invest in the future. And bailouts set the wrong precedent for other industries.
The Only Plausible Argument
There is therefore only one reasonable argument for choosing bailouts over bankruptcy. Bailouts might make sense if bankruptcy imposed an externality—an unwelcome spillover effect. The argument for that goes as follows: When a given bank fails, it loses intermediation capital, or the ability to make loans. Any given bank knows a particular sector of the economy, a particular region of the country, or a particular kind of loan market. So if that bank fails, that specialized knowledge gets destroyed; therefore, at least in the short term, no one can easily make that kind of loan.
If that happened to one bank, you’d say it was no big deal; there are plenty of banks that have lots of knowledge. But if one large bank fails and defaults on obligations to lots of other banks, forcing some of them to fail, you might worry that contagion could lead to a lot of intermediation capital disappearing in a short period of time.
That story sounds somewhat plausible. But it has two key weaknesses, one theoretical and one empirical.
The theoretical weakness is that if a bank fails but its assets and its employees are bought by another bank, there is no reason for the intermediation capital to disappear. It just gets transferred to someone else. If you think that the good ideas for making productive loans are in the brains of the people of the failed bank, those people are probably going to go work at some other financial institution—a hedge fund, an insurance company, another bank. So you’re not necessarily going to lose all the intermediation capital as a result of the failure. Indeed, the failed bank’s employees may be put to work in more productive ways.