Thursday, March 30, 2023

 The Silicon Valley Bank Bailout: The Purpose of Government Is to Make the Rich Richer #63,486

There is a standard tale of politics where conservatives want to leave things to the market, whereas the left want a big role for government. The right likes to tell this story because it advantages them politically, since most people tend to have a positive view of the market. The left likes to tell it because they are not very good at politics and have an aversion to serious thinking.

The Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) bailout is yet another great example of how the right is just fine with government intervention, as long as the purpose is making the rich richer. Left to the market, the outcome in this case was clear. The FDIC guaranteed accounts up to $250k. This meant that the government’s insurance program would ensure that everyone got the first $250,000 in their account returned in full.

The amounts above $250,000 were not insured. This is both a matter of law and a matter of paying for what you get. The FDIC chargesa fee on the first $250,000 in an account based on the size and strength of the bank. This fee ranges from 0.015 percent to 0.40 percent annually, depending on the size and riskiness of the bank. Most people would not see the insurance fee directly, because it is charged to bank, but we can be sure that the bank passes this cost on to its depositors.

However, these fees only apply to the first $250,000 in an account. This means that people who had more than $250,000 in an account were not paying for insurance. Nonetheless, when they needed insurance from the government, they got it, even though they didn’t pay for it.

As we are now hearing, in many cases this handout ran into the tens of millions, or even billions, of dollars, almost all of it going to the very richest people in the country. Compare these depositors’ sense of entitlement to a government handout, to the outrage over President Biden’s proposal to forgive $10,000 of student loan debt. (To be clear, depositors likely would have gotten 80 to 90 percent of their money back in any case.)

In the case of SVB, rich depositors could not bother themselves with taking steps to ensure that their money was parked in a safe place. This is in spite of the fact that almost all of them pay people to help them manage their money.

By contrast, in the case of student loan debt, many 18-year-olds may have misjudged their future labor market prospects. This sort of error would not be surprising given the economic turmoil we have seen since the collapse of the housing bubble and the Great Recession.

Making the Rich Richer with Drugs and Vaccines

The idea that the purpose of government is to make the rich richer pervades every aspect of economic policy. When we were confronted with a worldwide pandemic, the government spent billions of dollars to quickly develop effective vaccines and treatments. And then, after developing them, we gave private companies like Moderna intellectual property rights over the product.

Naturally, this sent Moderna’s stock soaring and made at least fiveModerna executives into billionaires. Only children and elite intellectuals could think the extreme inequality we see in this story has anything to do with the market, but we will get the same tale again and again. The right wants to accept market outcomes, while the left wants to use the government to address inequality.

It’s striking that even now the government is acting to make the Moderna crew still richer. Moderna and Pfizer have announced that they want to charge between $110 and $130 a shot for their new Covid booster.

Peter Hotez and Elena Bottazzi, two highly respected researchers at Baylor University and Texas Children’s Hospital, developeda simple to produce, 100 percent open-source Covid vaccine. It uses well-established technologies that are not complicated (unlike mRNA). Their vaccine has been widely used in India and Indonesia, with over 100 million people getting the vaccine to date.

If we want to see the vaccine used here it would need to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In principle, the FDA could rely on the clinical trials used to gain approval in India, but it indicated that they want a U.S. trial. (In fairness, India’s trials are probably lower quality.)

However, the government could fund a trial of Hotez-Bottazzi vaccine (Corbevax) with pots of money left over from Operation Warp Speed, or alternatively from the budgets of National Institutes of Health or other agencies like Biomedical ​Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). With tens of billions of dollars of government money going to support biomedical research each year, the ten million or so needed for a clinical trial of Corbevax would be a drop in the bucket.

The arithmetic on this is incredible. Shots of Corbevax cost less than $2 a piece in India. If it costs two and a half times as much in the U.S., that still puts it at $5 a shot. That implies savings of more than $100 a shot.

That means that if we get 100,000 people to take the Corbevax booster, rather than the Modern-Pfizer ones (Pfizer is planning to also charge over $100 for its booster), we’ve covered the cost of the trials. If we get 1 million to take Corbevax, we’ve covered the cost ten times over, and if 10 million people get the Corbevax booster, we will have saved one hundred times the cost of the clinical trial.

But for now, we are not going this route. Remember, the purpose of government is to make the rich richer.

This is a huge story in the pharmaceutical industry more generally. We will spend close to $550 billion this year on prescription drugs. These drugs would almost certainly cost less than $100 billion a year if they were sold in a free market without government-granted patent monopolies or related protections.

The differences of $450 billion is roughly half the size of the military budget and more than four times what we will spend on the Food Stamp program. It comes to more than $3,000 per household each year, and yes, it mostly goes to people at the top end of the income distribution.

We would have to replace the roughly $100 billion a year that the industry spends on research, but we would almost certainly come out way ahead in that story, as with the Hotez-Bottazzi vaccine.

In addition, by making drugs cheap, we will end the crisis that many people face in trying to come up with the money to pay for life-saving drugs. We would also eliminate the enormous incentive that patent-protected drug prices give drug companies to lie about the safety and effectiveness of their drugs.

Structuring Finance to Serve the Market, not the Rich

We don’t need to have a financial system that has periodic bank collapses and makes millionaires and billionaires out of top bank executives. This is a policy choice by a government committed to making the rich richer.

The most obvious solution would be to have the Federal Reserve Board give every person and corporation in the country a digital bank account. The idea is that this would be a largely costless way for people to carry on their normal transactions. They could have their paychecks deposited there every two weeks or month. They could have their mortgage or rent, electric bill, credit card bill, and other bills paid directly from their accounts.

This sort of system could be operated at minimal cost, with the overwhelming majority of transactions handled electronically, requiring no human intervention. There could be modest charge for overdrafts, that would be structured to cover the cost of actually dealing with the problem, not gouging people to make big profits.

Former Fed economist (now at Dartmouth), Andy Levin, has been etching the outlines of this sort of system for a number of years. The idea would be to effectively separate out the banking system we use for carrying on transactions from the system we use for saving and financing investment.

We would have the Fed run system to carry out the vast majority of normal financial transactions, replacing the banks that we use now. However, we would continue to have investment banks, like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, that would borrow on financial markets and lend money to businesses, as well as underwriting stock and bond issues. While investment banks still require regulation to prevent abuses, we don’t have to worry about their failure shutting down the financial system.

Not only would the shift to Fed banking radically reduce the risk the financial sector poses to the economy, it would also make it hugely more efficient. We waste tens of billions of dollars every year maintaining the structure of a financial system that technology has made obsolete.

The current system also makes some people incredibly rich, even when they fail disastrously. Greg Becker, the President and Chief Executive Officer, earned$9,922,000 in SVB’s 2021 fiscal year (the most recent year for which I could find the data). That would be roughly 684 times what a minimum wage worker would earn for a full year’s work. (Top execs at the largest banks can earn three or four times this amount.)

If we think that a worker has a 45-year working lifetime, then Mr. Becker pulls down more in a year than what a minimum wage worker would get in 15 working lifetimes. The CEOs at Lehman and Bear Stearns, two of the huge failed banks in the financial crisis, walked away with hundreds of millions of dollars for their work.

So, the basic story is that the government has designed a financial system designed to redistribute massive amounts of money to the rich. We could have a hugely more efficient system, but since that would end the gravy train for those at the top, it is not on the political agenda.

The Big Lie: Conservatives Don’t Like Big Government

As this bailout should make clear is that, contrary to what the media tell us, conservatives love big government. They just think that the focus of big government should be making the rich as rich as possible, not helping ordinary people and securing the economy and society.

To be clear, I do think this bailout was necessary given the fragility of the economy at present (unlike the 2008-09 bailout, that was sold with the lie that we faced a Second Great Depression). However, we need to get our eye on the ball here.

The idea that conservatives like the market and not the government is unadulterated crap. It is a myth that they use to conceal the ways they have rigged the market to make income flow upward. Unfortunately, virtually the entire left has agreed to go along with this absurd myth. Moments like the bailout of the rich depositors at SVB make the truth about conservatives and the market apparent to all. (And yes, this is the point of Rigged [it’s free].)

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Joseph Stiglitz: Another Predictable Bank Failure

 ar 13, 2023

The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank is emblematic of deep failures in the conduct of both regulatory and monetary policy. Will those who helped create this mess play a constructive role in minimizing the damage, and will all of us – bankers, investors, policymakers, and the public – finally learn the right lessons?

NEW YORK – The run on Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) – on which nearly half of all venture-backed tech start-ups in the United States depend – is in part a rerun of a familiar story, but it’s more than that. Once again, economic policy and financial regulation has proven inadequate.
Lessons from the SVB Coll

The news about the second-biggest bank failure in US history came just days after Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell assured Congress that the financial condition of America’s banks was sound. But the timing should not be surprising. Given the large and rapid increases in interest rates Powell engineered – probably the most significant since former Fed Chair Paul Volcker’s interest-rate hikes of 40 years ago – it was predicted that dramatic movements in the prices of financial assets would cause trauma somewhere in the financial system.

But, again, Powell assured us not to worry – despite abundant historical experience indicating that we should be worried. Powell was part of former President Donald Trump’s regulatory team that worked to weaken the Dodd-Frank bank regulations enacted after the 2008 financial meltdown, in order to free “smaller” banks from the standards applied to the largest, systemically important, banks. By the standards of Citibank, SVB is small. But it’s not small in the lives of the millions who depend on it.

Powell said that there would be pain as the Fed relentlessly raised interest rates – not for him or many of his friends in private capital, who reportedly were planning to make a killing as they hoped to sweep in to buy uninsured deposits in SVB at 50-60 cents on the dollar, before the government made it clear that these depositors would be protected. The worst pain would be reserved for members of marginalized and vulnerable groups, like young nonwhite males. Their unemployment rate is typically four times the national average, so an increase from 3.6% to 5% translates into an increase from something like 15% to 20% for them. He blithely calls for such unemployment increases (falsely claiming that they are necessary to bring down the inflation rate) with nary an appeal for assistance, or even a mention of the long-term costs.1

Now, as a result of Powell’s callous – and totally unnecessary – advocacy of pain, we have a new set of victims, and America’s most dynamic sector and region will be put on hold. Silicon Valley’s start-up entrepreneurs, often young, thought the government was doing its job, so they focused on innovation, not on checking their bank’s balance sheet daily – which in any case they couldn’t have done. (Full disclosure: my daughter, the CEO of an education startup, is one of those dynamic entrepreneurs.)

While new technologies haven’t changed the fundamentals of banking, they have increased the risk of bank runs. It is much easier to withdraw funds than it once was, and social media turbocharges rumors that may spur a wave of simultaneous withdrawals (though SVB reportedly simply didn’t respond to orders to transfer money out, creating what may be a legal nightmare). Reportedly, SVB’s downfall wasn’t due to the kind of bad lending practices that led to the 2008 crisis and that represent a fundamental failure in banks performing their central role in credit allocation. Rather, it was more prosaic: all banks engage in “maturity transformation,” making short-term deposits available for long-term investment. SVB had bought long-term bonds, exposing the institution to risks when yield curves changed dramatically.

New technology also makes the old $250,000 limit on federal deposit insurance absurd: some firms engage in regulatory arbitrage by scattering funds over a large number of banks. It’s insane to reward them at the expense of those who trusted regulators to do their job. What does it say about a country when those who work hard and introduce new products that people want are brought down simply because the banking system fails them? A safe and sound banking system is a sine qua non of a modern economy, and yet America’s is not exactly inspiring confidence.

As Barry Ritholtz tweeted, “Just as there are no atheists in Fox Holes, there are also no Libertarians during a financial crisis.” A host of crusaders against government rules and regulations suddenly became champions of a government bailout of SVB, just as the financiers and policymakers who engineered the massive deregulation that led to the 2008 crisis called for bailing out those who caused it. (Lawrence Summers, who led the financial deregulation charge as US Treasury Secretary under President Bill Clinton, also called for a bailout of SVB – all the more remarkable after he took a strong stance against helping students with their debt burdens.)1

The answer now is the same as it was 15 years ago. The shareholders and bondholders, who benefited from the firm’s risky behavior, should bear the consequences. But SVB’s depositors – firms and households that trusted regulators to do their job, as they repeatedly reassured the public they were doing – should be made whole, whether above or below the $250,000 “insured” amount.

To do otherwise would cause long-term damage to one of America’s most vibrant economic sectors; whatever one thinks of Big Tech, innovation must continue, including in areas such as green tech and education. More broadly, doing nothing would send a dangerous message to the public: The only way to be sure your money is protected is to put it in the systemically important “too big to fail” banks. This would result in even greater market concentration – and less innovation – in the US financial system.

After an anguishing weekend for those potentially affected throughout the country, the government finally did the right thing – it guaranteed that all depositors would be made whole, preventing a bank run that could have disrupted the economy. At the same time, the events made clear that something was wrong with the system.

Some will say that bailing out SVB’s depositors will lead to “moral hazard.” That is nonsense. Banks’ bondholders and shareholders are still at risk if they don’t oversee managers properly. Ordinary depositors are not supposed to be managing bank risk; they should be able to rely on our regulatory system to ensure that if an institution calls itself a bank, it has the financial wherewithal to pay back what is put into it.

SVB represents more than the failure of a single bank. It is emblematic of deep failures in the conduct of both regulatory and monetary policy. Like the 2008 crisis, it was predictable and predicted. Let’s hope that those who helped create this mess can play a constructive role in minimizing the damage, and that this time, all of us – bankers, investors, policymakers, and the public – will finally learn the right lessons. We need stricter regulation, to ensure that all banks are safe. All bank deposits should be insured. And the costs should be borne by those who benefit the most: wealthy individuals and corporations, and those who rely most on the banking system, based on deposits, transactions, and other relevant metrics.

It has been more than 115 years since the panic of 1907, which led to the establishment of the Federal Reserve System. New technologies have made panics and bank runs easier. But the consequences can be even more severe. It’s time our framework of policymaking and regulation responds.

Monday, March 13, 2023

Dean Baker on SVB - Its a billionaire bailout; and it's Trump's Fault


There are two key points that people should recognize about the decision to guarantee all the deposits at Silicon Valley Bank (SVB):
  • It was a bailout
  • Donald Trump was the person responsible.

The first point is straightforward. We gave a government guarantee of great value to people who had not paid for it.

We will get a lot of silly game playing on this issue, just like we did back in 2008-09. The game players will tell us that this guarantee didn’t cost the government a penny, which will very likely end up being true. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t give the bank’s large depositors something of great value.

If the government offers to guarantee a loan, it makes it far more likely that the beneficiary will be able to get the loan and that they will pay a lower interest rate for this loan. In this case, the people who held large uninsured deposits at SVB apparently decided that it was better, for whatever reason, to expose themselves to the risk by keeping these deposits at SVB, rather than adjusting their finances in a way that would have kept their money better protected.

This would have meant either parking their deposits at a larger bank that was subject to more careful scrutiny by regulators, or adjusting their assets so that they were not so exposed to a single bank. They also could have taken ten minutes to examine SVB’s financial situation, which was mostly a matter of public record.    

For whatever reason, the bank’s large depositors chose to expose themselves to serious risk. When their bet turned out badly, they in effect wanted the government to provide the insurance that they did not pay for.

This brings us to the second point; this is Donald Trump’s bailout. The reason this is a bailout is that the government is providing a benefit that the depositors did not pay for. It also is, in effect, a subsidy to other mid-sized banks, since it tells their depositors that they can count on the government covering their deposits, even though they are not insured and the bank is not subject to the same scrutiny as the largest banks.

This is where the fault lies with Donald Trump. It was his decision to stop scrutinizing banks with assets between $50 billion and $250 billion that led to the problems at SVB.  

Prior to the passage of this bill, a bank the size of SVB would have been subject to regular stress tests. A stress test means projecting how a bank would fare in various bad situations, like the rise in interest rates that apparently sank SVB.

If regulators had subjected to SVB to a stress test, they would have almost surely recognized its problems. They then would have required it to raise more capital and/or shed deposits.

But Trump pulled the regulators off the job. This is wrongly described as “deregulation.” It isn’t.

Deregulation would mean both eliminating the scrutiny of SVB and ending insurance for the bank. (In principle that would mean ending all deposit insurance, not the just the insurance for large accounts that is at issue here.)

What happened in 2018 was effectively allowing SVB to still benefit from insurance without having to pay for it. It is comparable to telling drivers that they don’t have to buy auto insurance, but will still be covered if they are in an accident. Or, perhaps a better example would be telling a restaurant that it is covered by fire insurance, but it doesn’t have to adhere to safety standards.

It is dishonest to describe this as “deregulation.” It is the government giving a subsidy to the banks in question. It is understandable that the banks prefer to describe their subsidy as deregulation, but it is not accurate.

Anyhow, this bailout is the Donald Trump bailout. He touted the 2018 bill when he signed it. We are now seeing the fruits of his action.