Sunday, May 3, 2009

"Contrarian" Naivete From TNR

Now that the "Wall-Street-controls-Washington" meme has gained traction, especially among the center-left, the oh-so-contrarian New Republic has taken to arguing that this isn't exactly true. After explaining several weeks ago that Simon Johnson's diagnosis of the United States as an emerging market crisis on steroids disquieted him, Noam Scheiber explains that the idea of Wall Street controlling the levers of power is problematic, since "Wall Street" is not a monolithic entity. To illustrate his case, Scheiber cites the recent controversy over mortgage cram-downs. When cram-down legislation, which would allow bankruptcy judges to renegotiate mortgages, came up in the Senate, lobbyists representing bankers and investors holding securitized mortgages united in opposition to the legislation. From Scheiber's piece:
When Obama unveiled his own housing plan in February, he asked Congress to revive the cram-down idea as part of a carrot-and-stick approach to helping borrowers. The carrot would be cash incentives--a series of $1,000 payments--for banks to perform modifications. Cram-down would serve as the stick.

Almost immediately, investors and banks joined forces to snap that stick like a twig. Investors hated the cram-down idea because they worried judges would force them to accept, say, lower interest payments for the sake of distressed borrowers. The big banks had similar worries for the mortgages they keep. Many also hold on to second liens (basically, second mortgages) after they sell off the first and worried judges would wipe those out entirely. And both groups generally feared the arbitrary ways judges might wield their power.

But then the script got flipped. The banks switched sides. Back to the article:

But a funny thing happened while the big banks and investors were uniting against the cram-down push: The banks cut their own deal. Top executives at four large banks--Citigroup, Bank of America, J.P. Morgan, and Wells Fargo--descended on Congress to proclaim they'd love nothing more than to modify mortgages, just like the president wants. It's just that, with all those greedy investors out there, you never know who's going to sue. The solution, they argued, was a "safe harbor" provision: Give us legal immunity, and we'll modify all the loans you send us.
Different classes of financiers going at each each other! See - Wall Street can't really control Washington if they're busy infighting. Scheiber explains that this conflict between banks and hedge funds is like the Iran -Iraq War: "Where there are no obvious good guys, the next best thing may be two powerful rivals beating each other to a pulp."

But why did the banks change their minds when it came to cramdowns? What were the fissures that led to the split up between banks and hedge funds over this issue? Scheiber explains that it was a matter of political savvy. From the article:

If the fight in Congress was essentially over who would eat hundreds of billions of dollars in housing market losses, the genius of the banks was to realize early on that, given the political environment, it wasn't going to be homeowners. That left them duking it out with investors, even if the latter weren't aware of it....

In the end, the problem for investors was largely sociological. Banking is a heavily regulated industry; in order to succeed, a bank's top executives must be as deft at navigating Washington as they are at lending money. But, with a few important exceptions, most hedge funds live by a meritocratic credo: You make money by having the more sophisticated computer model or arbitrage strategy. "Traditionally, investors aren't lobbyists, they don't have an eye toward Washington".

In short: banks are used to the ways of Washington and did a better job reading the political winds, so they abandoned their opposition to cramdowns. However, this ignores a key fact: the banks rely on the government for survival, both directly via capital infusions and indirectly in the form of FDIC-guaranteed debt. Is it inconceivable that the government, ahem, told the banks that it would be an awful shame if populist rage over cramdowns hamstrung Congress from going back for TARP II? After all, didn't something similar more or less seem to happen back in February when JP Morgan, BofA, and Citgroup agreed to a foreclosure moratorium? Not even considering this possibility smacks of remarkable credulity and naivete. If this is the case, then the degree to which the financial services industry owns our government is even more depressing. Even when the government has enough leverage over the banks to turn them against the hedge funds, the hedge funds still won. This hardly seems cause to break out the champagne.

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