Failures and breakthroughs – exposed, reflected, considered

Paulson mistakes and chapter 11

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A brief but illuminating summary of recent blunders of Henry Paulson, an expert on the Great Depression.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson made some disastrous decisions that had major unintended consequences.

One of those was the decision to nationalize Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Once the government took over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, supposedly preemptively, shareholders of every other financial company that perhaps needed capital were left with no choice but to sell aggressively, fearing the government might decide to preemptively wipe them out also. This made it impossible for any company to raise the capital it needed or wanted.

About a week later Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, Merrill Lynch was forced to sell to Bank of America, and AIG was extended a huge government loan, all completely or nearly wiping out shareholders.

Then Paulson forced nine major banks to receive capital infusions from treasury, effectively partly nationalizing them, and creating a huge American Sovereign Wealth fund.

The above referenced nationalizations created a bizarre situation where the government contended that financial institutions needed more capital, and that it should be private capital that will solve the problem. But the government also indicated that it stands ready to provide additional assistance in the future, thus destroying the equity stakes of those prospective capital providers. Why would private capital invest, if it believes it is the policy of the government to later intervene and dilute it?

Enter the pernicious crash of October-November 2008.

The smartest CEO, John Thain of Merrill, understood the new landscape before anyone else and quickly sold at the then still available price, albeit a fraction of his company’s value at its peak. In doing that he saved Merrill from the ignominious fate it was inevitably headed towards, the same fate that awaited Lehman Brothers.

And by letting Lehman Fail, the counterparty risk was unleashed on the economy of the world, as Lehman was involved in thousands of trades all over the globe and was much bigger than Bear Stearns. That brought to the forefront the systemic risk that is now looming above us like a dark cloud. All of a sudden even money market funds were losing principal. Secured bond holders are losing money (unlike the creditors of Bear Stearns, Fannie and Freddie, who emerged whole). Nobody knew who could be trusted, and short term credit markets ceased to function, severely impairing the economy further.I believe Secretary Paulson’s policies aggravated the crisis. At the moment, Citigroup and JP Morgan are struggling; locked out of the market for private capital and their shares are in free fall. Despite major capital infusions, most financial stocks are down sharply. The nine institutions that received the first cash infusion from Washington have seen their shares fall more than 40% since then. Goldman Sachs last week was trading at a value less than just the amount of money it raised recently. So many financial institutions are failing, making the federal government their built-in savior and enervating the Fed’s resources with their insatiable demand for fresh cash.All this is making it palpably clear that the Treasury’s policy did nothing to build confidence or stabilize the markets. The sickening, precipitous drop of the equity markets in October and November are the market’s judgment on the merit of Treasury’s policies.

Here is the original article from the Huffington Post.

He accepted his errors by saying, “We’re not proud of all the mistakes that were made by many different people, different parties, failures of our regulatory system, failures of market discipline that got us here.” His solution was then and now to “buy bad assets and the administration has allocated $US100 billion for that portion of the program,” referring to the $700 billion bailout program.

His approach however looks more like a band-aid, which will postpone but by no means prevent a near certainly future problems in the financial markets. As one shrewd expert admits, “The government cannot repeal the law of gravity and stop markets from falling. Nor can it turn back the clock to reverse our financial blunders.”

The currently prevalent and rather dogmatic approach of avoiding filing for the Chapter 11 is mostly due to a misconception. It is commonly thought that a company or an organization filing for the bankruptcy (immediately) ceases its activities and (virtually) its existence. This is wrong. Usually the causes (especially in high-tech cases) to file for Chapter 11 include overwhelming debt, defensive maneuver against temporary legal liabilities and need for reducing labor problems. For the duration of being under the Chapter 11 protection, the company/organization continuous its operations. The difference mainly comes in guise of added supervision and control. The debtor usually remains in possession of the company’s assets, and operates the businesses under the supervision and control of the court and for the benefit of creditors. The debtor in possession is a fiduciary for the creditors. The objective and desired result of the Chapter 11 protection is make the company cut costs, re-orient itself and streamline in resources in efficient manner in order to return to profitability. Although admittedly the rate of successful Chapter 11 reorganizations is low (estimated at 10% or less), it is still a better solution, and is not only considered by small and medium but by large multinational corporations such as GM (which follows the same path of peering into the public money instead of doing an internal restructuring, refocusing and cost cutting as was done to save IBM in a similar case in 1993). In addition to other benefits, for the GM case, Marketing expert Seth Godin goes to the extreme of proposing, “Use the bankruptcy to wipe out the hated, legacy marketing portion of the industry: the dealers.” And then adding, “We’d end up with a rational number of “car stores” in every city that sold lots of brands. We’d have super cheap cars and super efficient cars and super weird cars. There’d be an orgy of innovation, and from that, a whole new energy and approach would evolve.” I agree.

Companies coming out of the Chapter 11 (usually few years after the initial filing) are leaner, healthier and better positioned. The most famous case in point is WorldCom.

One way or another, financial policies so far espoused by the US Treasury and Fed not only come short of calming markets and inducing confidence in money-needing banks, but also continue wasting tons of taxpayer dollars, imposing a heavy financial burden on younger generations.

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