Sunday, December 21, 2008

Changing the Rules Midgame

On Friday, the Bush administration opened up the TARP funds to bailout the Auto Industry.  Yet another example of the government not fully understanding the law of unintended consequences.

I love analyzing unintended consequences.  It challenges our assumptions about the things we only think we know.  Those who follow this blog know I have alway opposed the TARP.  So my disdain for the Auto Bailout is just an extension of my hatred for any sort of government intervention into private enterprise.  Remember, it is OUR tax money that is going to save the ass of these PRIVATE companies.  I really really hate the idea of private gains and socialized losses.  When these companies were doing well, did the taxpayers see any benefit?  Now that they are losing money, why are expected to share in teh losses?  How can any capitalistic system work when parties do not have to pay for the consequences of the risks that they take?

At any rate, I am fairly certain that the government actions at this point are doing more harm then good.

The goal of the TARP, at least initially, was to unfreeze the credit markets.  If capital stops moving around, then the entire economy freezes.  People cannot get loans to buy cars.  Businesses cannot receive credit to buy merchandise.  They have to lay people off since they have no goods to sell.  Banks refuse to loan money to people and businesses that have bleak prospects, which is everyone.  This would put the economy in a death spiral which the government was not willing to risk.  Now, while I disagree that this would have been the outcome, at the very least I can understand why they did it.   It is truly impossible to know what would have happened.

But for me, it is easy to take a good guess about what has and what will happen because of this.   I just have to look at the incentives that the government is creating.

First, I just look at what has happened.  It is clear that the markets are frozen in part because of what the government is doing.  I as an investor have no idea what the government is going to do next.  This makes it very hard for me to be able to figure out what I should be doing.  I would love to get long or short certain stocks but I simply cannot.  For example, I think commercial real estate needs to go down from here but I cannot easily get in because the government might try to bail them out next.  While on the surface it may seem like a good thing that people are fearful to go short, you have to remember that a healthy market has both winners and losers.  Losers are taken out quickly and shot.  This means there is more capital to deploy to healthier companies.

But this cannot happen so long as the government props up failing businesses.  Money will continue to flow to places it should not because the government might do something unexpected.  Look at what almost happened to oil.  Barack wanted to implement a "Windfall Profit" tax.   Now oil is down to about 30% of where it was before.  If there would have been a windfall profits tax it would have constrained supply causing the price of gas to go higher.  When left alone, you can see what happened.  Oil corrected ridiculously fast and now I am buying gas at around $1.60 a gallon.  This is how markets are supposed to function, we eventually reach equilibrium.

But this cannot happen so long as the government continues to interfere.  So what is next?  I have no doubt the market will continue to freeze.  Why should private investors step in when they are being crowded out by the government?  Why would any business want to take money from private parties when they can get money from the government for free?  More and more companies are going to start coming with their hands out asking for a bailout.   We will see at least a few more industries claiming they are crucial to the economy and that letting them fail will mean millions of jobs.

The market will stick around this range for a while.  It will not rally or drop too much from here.  People are at a standstill because there really is no way to tell which way to go.  Some people may welcome the relief from the volatility.  But I see a bigger problem; we could easily end up like Japan and just stay stagnant for years.  It is like ripping off a band aid.  We should have just tore it off and hit bottom as quickly as possible so that the recovery could happen just as quickly.  But that is not what is going to happen.  We will no doubt get a few rallies that may seem like there are brighter skies ahead.  But we will not know what the government will do next, and since I do not know the rules of the game, I am most likely to not play.

1 comment:

  1. I cannot say that I am at all surprised. The minute I heard the government was going to step in and "stimulate" the economy, I knew that was code for a bailout. If there's one thing I know about the Bush administration (and our government in general) is the need to play savior. I have seen this mentality in so many wars: World War II, Korean, Gulf War, and of course the never-ending Iraq situation. Do you know what all these wars have in common? Unnecessarily long presence of American troops after the bloodshed is over. Some people may argue that we need to stay for a period of re-stabilization, but who determines that time period? And on what basis? If other ally counties have withdrawn their troops, why are American troops that only ones still involved? Our government needs to know its boundaries. They want to take on as much as they can without full analysis of the consequences (and worse yet, they don't have the courage to admit when they're wrong and just scrap a bad idea). Are Congress or House members taking turns to be soldiers in Iraq? No! It's ordinary people like you and me. Are Congress and House members emptying part of their bank account to supplement this bailout plan? No, they're using our tax money. The best reason the government could come up with for this bailout plan is they want to save jobs. So let me get this straight... the government wants to use our money to pay GM to build cars that has no market.... What will GM do in one year? Continue to ask for money? Well, of course! If no one will buy what GM is producing, where else will they get money?! So how long do you think is reasonable to spend tax dollars on GM knowing that they are dependent on tax dollars to survive? Maybe as long as our troops have been in Iraq?