As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Haggling With Taxpayer-Owned Companies

This is a maddening enough situation when you isolate it, but keep in mind that the government has kept these same banks afloat with hundreds of billions of dollars in capital.

The Obama administration has entered a tense showdown with several of the nation’s largest banks that appears likely to determine whether Chrysler survives.

Last week the Treasury Department, which runs President Obama’s automobile task force, presented banks holding $6.9 billion in Chrysler’s secured debt with a plan under which they would get about 15 cents on the dollar, or about $1 billion.

That is roughly the trading level of Chrysler debt in recent days, a reflection of Mr. Obama’s declaration that the firm is not viable on its own, and must put together a partnership with Fiat or go out of business [...]

On Monday the banks, led by JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup, rejected the administration’s plan outright, with some of the debtholders arguing that they would rather break up Chrysler and sell its assets — notably its Jeep brand — because they believed that they would receive more money selling the assets than they were being offered by the administration.

The lenders offered 65 cents on the dollar and a 40% stake in Chrysler, and the government has now counter-offered with 22 cents and a 5% stake in the reorganized company. The union is sitting on the sidelines at this point.

Can I just re-emphasize how ridiculous this is? For all practical purposes, we own the banks that are haggling with us. And this isn't the only area in which the banks are using our money to show leverage over our government. Among the millions of dollars in political lobbying, the banksters are stopping progress on consumer bills:

The banks have made it difficult for Congressional Democrats and the White House to give stretched homeowners a stronger hand in negotiating lower monthly payments on mortgages and to prevent credit card companies from imposing higher fees and interest rates.

Having won some early skirmishes by teaming with Republican allies, the banks now appear to have the upper hand and may wind up killing — or at least substantially diluting — both pro-consumer measures.

I don't think they'll stop the credit card bill - the President has personally stepped in on that one and I expect a decent bill to pass, the way it did yesterday - but cram-down does look dead, with key Democrats jumping ship. James Kwak correctly sources my anger.

The banks leading the charge over Chrysler: JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup. The banks opposed to cram-downs: Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo. The banks blocking credit card protections: American Express, Bank of America, Capital One Financial, Citigroup, Discover Financial Services, and JPMorgan Chase. All or almost all are bailout beneficiaries. But don’t blame them: they’re just doing what they can to maximize their profits at the expense of the taxpayer, which is perfectly legal (and even ethical, depending on your conception of shareholder rights). Instead, you should be wondering why they are in a position to be maximizing profits at the taxpayer’s expense.

If you’re Tim Geithner or Barack Obama, you’re probably thinking that now would be a nice time to have a controlling interest in these banks so they would stop blocking your efforts to help the rest of the economy. But the government has consistently bent over backward to avoid gaining control over the banks. It began with Henry Paulson (Bush administration) taking non-convertible, non-voting preferred shares last October; it continued with the Citigroup and Bank of America bailouts in November and January (during the transition period), in which the banks got underpriced asset insurance in exchange for more non-voting shares; and it peaked in the third Citigroup bailout in February, when the Obama administration insisted on forcing other investors to convert preferred shares into common, precisely to avoid getting a majority stake.

If the government had simply accepted the ordinary consequences of its actions - majority ownership - it would at least not have to plead for favors from Citigroup and Bank of America, who desperately needed help on any terms the government chose to dictate. Arguably JPMorgan and Wells are in a different situation, since the government was never in a position to buy a majority stake, and they are claiming they only took TARP money as an act of patriotic solidarity. But leaving aside TARP capital, the government has gone to extraordinary lengths to protect the financial system - guarantees on money market funds, increased guarantees on deposits, guarantees on bank debt, massive programs to lend against or purchase securities, not to mention the AIG bailout conduit - without which none of these banks would be in a position to make a profit. Yet it has left the banks in a position to capture the entire surplus from its actions, without getting the kind of concessions that would come in handy now.

When government takes its own tools away from itself, this is the consequence - a society governed by oligarchs.

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