DRI-307 for week of 6-30-13: Paving the Road to Hell: A Short History of Bailouts

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Paving the Road to Hell: A Short History of Bailouts

A versatile sports anecdote of obscure lineage pits a combative baseball manager against a first-base umpire. The manager conducts a prolonged, high-decibel – but utterly unavailing – protest against the umpire’s decision to call a runner out at first base. Upon returning to the dugout, the manager encounters a quizzical coach.

“Why waste all that energy?” the coach inquires. “You know he’s not going to change his call.”

“I’m not arguing about that call,” the manager replies vehemently. “I’m arguing for the next one.”

The story may be apocryphal, but its point is sound. Umpires are known to be influenced by their own nagging suspicions that they have blown a call, so much so that umpire schools teach pupils not to compensate for mistakes in subsequent decisions. The immediate aftermath of the play is the manager’s only window of opportunity to influence the umpire – about future plays, not the one argued about.

From the beginning, economists have argued against “bailouts” – the use of government (e.g., taxpayer) funds to rescue failing business firms. Although the arguments supporting bailouts pretend to be economic, the true motivation is invariably political. This suggests that economists’ opposition is futile. Yet the opposition continues, just as the bailouts themselves do.

Like the proverbial manager, economists are arguing for the next one. They know that the bailout process has a cumulative momentum. A bailout is not an independent, isolated event that stands or falls purely on its own merits. Each bailout establishes the precedent for the succeeding one. Moreover, each new generation requires a fresh introduction to the illogic of the bailout, as well as to the history of the process. Economists direct their arguments against past bailouts, but their true targets are the bailouts to come – the ones whose fate they can influence.

That is why a history of bailouts and the ghastly reasoning that inspired them is far from pointless. It is our only prophylactic against the flood of bailouts to come.

Penn Central (1970)

The Penn Central Railroad was created by the 1968 merger of two venerable American railroad companies: the New York Central Railroad and the Pennsylvania Railroad. A year later, the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad joined the party to form Penn Central Transportation Company. These railroads all shared common features, particularly their location in the northeast United States. The Northeast corridor was the most population-dense region of the country. Each of these roads specialized in short hauls of people and freight, in contrast to the mostly long-haul traffic carried by railroads elsewhere in the U.S.

The problem was that, while shorter routes made geographic sense, many competing means of transport had evolved by the late 1960s. Barges carried bulky, low value-to-weight commodities like gravel and sand. Trucks carried retail goods and foodstuffs, including refrigerated perishables. Buses and automobiles carried passenger traffic. This left specialized raw materials like coal and commuting passengers for the railroads.

The roads wanted and needed to lower freight and passenger rates to compete with rival industries. Alas, they were hamstrung by the Interstate Commerce Commission, whose regulations forbade rate changes without regulatory hearings. Ironically, the very regulatory body ostensibly created (in 1887) to prevent railroads from utilizing monopoly power now prevented them from behaving competitively. The erosion of railroad customer base to these competing transportation modes left the railroads with scads of excess capacity and no way to utilize it. This was a recipe for bankruptcy.

The theory behind Penn Central was that merger would allow the single entity to better utilize capacity by selling off abandoning track and rolling stock. Unfortunately, it succeeded only in building a bigger, bulkier and less efficient mousetrap. Penn Central declared bankruptcy in 1970 and was eventually declared unsuitable for reorganization. The federal government took over its passenger business and operated it under the name of Conrail.

Railroads in general and Conrail in particular were saved, not by government bailouts, but by the deregulation of railroads in the Staggers Act of 1980. This gave railroad companies the freedom and flexibility to act quickly and decisively to serve customers by cutting prices and dumping unprofitable lines of business. Unfortunately, the federal government continued to operate a nationalized passenger-rail transport system called Amtrak. Today, a completely deregulated railroad industry would undoubtedly serve the part of the U.S. where passenger-rail service remains viable – the Northeast. Instead, Amtrak continues to serve markets where the demand for passenger service is feeble and the costs of service are astronomically high.

Why in the world was Penn Central bailed out to produce Conrail? What crying necessity demanded it? What calamity would have accompanied an orderly bankruptcy and the demise and liquidation of the company? “None” and “none,” respectively, are the answers to the last two questions. Many upper-middle-class and upper-class Northeasterners traveled the commuter routes served by the roads, and the railroad unions wielded political clout in inverse proportion to the value created by their members for the railroads. (The term “featherbedding” was coined to describe the work practices of railroad-union employees.) The Republican (!) administration in power was powerless to resist the political temptation to “save jobs” and preserve a highly visible service catering to an influential elite.

Today, everybody has forgotten about Conrail. Nobody remembers the first great federal bailout of private business. Of course, it did not end in a huge fiasco. And today the railroad sector is a tremendous transportation success story. But the reason for success is the subsequent deregulation of railroads, and the remaining legacy of the bailout – Amtrak – continues to hemorrhage red ink and suck involuntary transfusions from taxpayers.

Great oafs from little acorns grow.

Lockheed (1971)

The longtime producer of jets had come to derive the bulk of its business from government contracts. This made it a creature of government, even though it technically operated in competition with other airplane manufacturers. The bankruptcy of British firm Rolls Royce – famous for its luxury automobile but also a proficient builder of engines – threatened the completion date for Lockheed’s TriStar L-1011 jet fighter. Default on this U.S. government contract would have put Lockheed under. To tide the company over, the U.S. Congress issued some $250 million in loan guarantees to Lockheed, over the protests of free-marketers.

This time, the rationale was somewhat different. Lockheed’s defense status allowed the company to wrap itself in the cloak of national security, a nuisance that probably destroys more GDP annually than any other economic pest. This required considerable chutzpah on Lockheed’s part, considering that America could still boast firms like Boeing and McDonnell Douglas even if Lockheed had padlocked its doors. But that didn’t stop the company from pointing to the dread specter of its 60,000 jobs that would be lost – gone forever! – if Congress did not ride to its rescue.

Sure enough, the TriStar made it to market. Fittingly, it was deep-sixed by competitors like Boeing’s BA747 and McDonnell Douglas’s DC-10. When the TriStar ceased production in 1983, Lockheed abandoned jet production (so much for our national security) and later merged with Martin Marietta to form Lockheed Martin.

Note, once again, that even though Lockheed did not default on its loans, the bailout was still exposed as a fraud. The pretext of protecting national security proved to be nonsense, the object of the loans proved to be superfluous and as for the jobs – well, the loan guarantees ended up saving a product that deserved to fail but didn’t immunize against an eventual loss of jobs, which went unnoticed anyway.

Chrysler (1980)

In 1979 Chrysler, the smallest of America’s “Big 3” automakers, turned in a then-gigantic $1 billion loss in net income and teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Dynamic CEO Lee Iacocca heeded the newly evolving American tradition that, when the going gets tough, the tough go begging – to Washington for a bailout. Probably recalling Lockheed’s loan guarantees, Iacocca secured $1.5 billion in guarantees for Chrysler. In addition to the (by now) old chestnut that he was “protecting jobs,” old-hog Iacocca was able to root up a new chestnut – that America’s automotive vanguard had to be protected against the encroachment of foreign competition from Japan. This was a conveniently flexible argument. If there had been no competition from Japan, Iacocca would then have argued that Chrysler needed to be saved to make sure that Americans didn’t run out of cars. Now he could argue that Chrysler needed to be saved to make sure that America “won” the “car war” with Japan. The fact that “winning” by subsidizing an inferior product was the same thing as losing didn’t seem to occur to most people – certainly not to Congress – and Iacocca was hailed as a genius for his lobbying efforts.

President Carter signed the bailout legislation in January, 1980. His administration saved face by requiring Chrysler to raise its own financing for the loans. Iacocca could later brag that the company returned to profitability by 1983 and repaid its loans. No harm, no foul, right? What a triumph for bailouts! At least, that was the general impression conveyed. Yet American consumers paid for Chrysler’s comeback in the form of taxes and quotas levied on imports of Japanese automobiles. That price was very steep.

The biggest price, though, came later. The Chrysler bailout set the stage for the later bailout of General Motors and Ford. The precedent set by Chrysler made it easy – indeed, virtually inevitable – to bail out the “Big 2” when their time came. Not only was it that much harder to reject the same bogus “jobs” rhetoric Iacocca had advanced, but the mere fact that Chrysler had done it and gotten away with it set a psychological minimum standard for treatment of ailing corporate giants. Previous bailees had been either quasi-utilities like Penn Central or quasi-government firms like Lockheed. This was a straightforward case of corporate welfare. It was a line jumped, a Rubicon crossed, a rule broken. Things would never be the same again.

Long Term Capital Management (1998)

In the late 1960s, a group of investors that included Nobel-Prize winning economists formed one of the first hedge funds, named Long Term Capital Management (LTCM). The fund was designed to incorporate asset pricing and portfolio management principles embodied in tools like the Capital Asset Pricing Model developed by William Sharpe. The most striking notions employed by LTCM were those involving portfolio risk.

LTCM designed highly risky portfolios that included long-term fixed-income instruments and currencies. It was precisely the long terms that produced the high risk, since the interest-rate risk of fixed-income securities increases with term to maturity. Currency risk likewise increases with the holding period. The high risk produced very high rates of return. So far, there was nothing remarkable about LTCM’s activities or methods. But the firm was able to offset most of the high risk through a hedge position, whose value was specifically designed to move inversely to that in the risky portfolios. Alternatively put, it was supposed to move directly with interest rates. The general idea behind this hedge investment was simple in concept but hard to achieve in practice: to rise in value when LTCM’s risky portfolios were falling in value, thus offsetting the otherwise-high risk LTCM was running. This made it possible for LTCM to earn spectacularly high profits in good times and break even (more or less) in bad times.

The hedge investment was a short position in U.S. Treasury securities. When worldwide interest rates rose, LTCM’s risky portfolio value would plummet. But LTCM’s managers knew that investors would bid down the prices of Treasury securities and, as a result, their effective yields (interest rates) would rise. Only this higher yield would make Treasury bonds equally satisfactory to investors when world interest rates had risen. The fall in Treasury-bond prices would make big profits on LTCM’s short position to offset the losses on its risky portfolios. And so it went for about 20 years until 1998.

That was the year of the Russian government default. Suddenly the world’s investors abandoned risky investments altogether. They embarked on a “flight to safety.” At that point, the U.S. government’s Treasury bond was still the prototypical riskless asset. So investors bought Treasury bonds, driving up their price and driving down their effective yields (interest rates).

Whoops! Now LTCM was losing boatloads of money on both sides of its trades. In no time it was going down for the third time, financially speaking. And its owners, having kept their eyes open for the preceding 20 years, did what any red-blooded American financier or CEO would do. They ran to the federal government for a bailout.

LTCM was not a railroad. It was not a defense contractor. It was not a car company. It wasn’t even a bank. It was just an investment company whose investment strategy had blown up in its face. Now its investors and owners were suddenly staring insolvency in the face. Except, in this case, they decided to stare Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan in the face instead. And Greenspan blinked. Acting through its New York branch, the Fed passed the plate around Wall Street and collected $3.8 billion in funds with which to salvage the firm’s investments while delivering the firm into the hands of its rescuers.

And what was the rationale for this unprecedented act? Basically, to prevent turmoil in the markets. LTCM was so big that the Fed was afraid that its failure would scare investors to death. Note that there was now no pretense of saving jobs, defending national security, preserving the sanctity of motherhood or the recipe for Mom’s apple pie.

LTCM was a hedge fund whose investors were people of considerable means. The whole idea behind the tight regulation of the investment business is to make sure that investors and investments are suitable for each other and risks are borne by willing individuals who can afford to lose the money. And now… the Fed said we couldn’t afford to let them lose the money! Why? Because the knowledge that one firm had failed would drive this group of rational investors to collectively commit irrational acts. The Fed intervened massively in capital markets to reverse the outcomes of legitimate trades because their subjective reading of collective psychology told them it was the thing to do. And they arbitrarily commandeered private resources to do so, without statutory or judicial warrant.

The Bailouts of the Great Recession and the Financial Crisis (2007-2010)

For most people, the steps taken by the federal government during the Great Recession and the Financial Crisis of 2008 seemed unique and precipitous. But our history of bailouts shows their roots extending far back in history.

The nationalizations of General Motors, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were preceded by the nationalization of Conrail. The bailout of GM came after the bailout of Chrysler. The bailout of a financial firm like LTCM paved the way for future bailouts of AIG, Goldman Sachs Hedge Fund and others. The numerous bank and near-bank bailouts in the Financial Crisis were the grandchildren of the Continental Illinois bailout.

The ostensible legacy of the Great Depression was that particular markets needed tight regulation. Financial markets needed it to insure that all parties had the information needed to make rational voluntary exchange possible. Banking needed it because the principle of fractional-reserve banking allowed banks in the aggregate to exert an undue influence over the supply of money through credit creation. In good times, this could facilitate inflation and the creation of bubbles. In bad times, this could cause disaster when bank runs and bank failures have a downwardly cascading effect on the money supply.

Our history of bailouts, however, indicates that bailouts began forfirms in specialized sectors like railroads, defense and banking, but gradually spread to mundane sectors like manufacturing and investment. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that today programs like TARP offers bailouts to a substantial sector of the American population. Homeowners make up a majority of U.S. households and it is not hard to envision a day when a mortgage will come with a guarantee against foreclosure.

The ultimate guarantors of a bailout are taxpayers. The government can obtain funds to bail out a business firm from only three sources: tax receipts, borrowing and money creation. Taxes reduce the real income of taxpayers. Borrowing requires the repayment of principal and interest; thus, it reduces taxpayer real incomes unless it funds the creation of a productive asset. Money creation reduces the value of taxpayers’ money holdings, which is tantamount to a tax.

When everybody bails out everybody else, the process is self-defeating. It becomes impossible and purposeless to sort out gainers and losers. Only the brokers, politicians and bureaucrats, are net gainers. Since the expenditure of resources necessary to produce the bailouts far exceeds the gains enjoyed by these groups, economists frown on the whole process. Far better to allow market to allocate resources and pass judgment on how well or how badly business firms use them to satisfy consumers. Of course, anybody who wants to voluntarily contribute their own resources to compensate losers in the competitive process is welcome to do so. When people act voluntarily, we can presume they gain more than they lose from their actions.

But when government meddling takes the form of bailouts, there is no such presumption.