Sunday, April 12, 2020

The Parallel Problems of TBTF and Poverty

The dilemma faced by central banks specifically and governments generally when considering corporate bailouts and other “market-saving” activities is very similar to the dilemma faced by those designing poverty-relief programs.

Essentially one wants to go with Bagehot’s Dictum: lend liberally on good collateral charging high interest but don’t bail out insolvency. I argue that this has some application to individuals as well as firms. And it applies not just to a central bank or government but really to anyone in a position to help another.

The general view seems to be that those suffering in relative or absolute poverty fall into one of two conditions: (1) Temporarily on hard times (solvent but for liquidity problems) and (2) Permanently unable to provide for oneself (insolvent due to fundamental problems). This was something in my notes from long ago, but it comes into high relief in the current pandemic crisis.

While I have tremendous and from my perspective very atypical faith in individuals' abilities to make the best choices for themselves and to have the corresponding responsibility for such, I do agree that for some people help is needed. For most people who end up in times of need, it is temporary (case 1). For some (few) it is permanent or for very long stretches and to a very large extent (versions of case 2). The dilemma is probably obvious: Is the person(s) in need going to be ultimately and truly helped by my charity or is it simply going to bailout and enable their poor choices? This is not an easy problem to solve. It is typically filled with emotional noise. There are always extenuating circumstances. Hypothetical narratives are easily constructed to fortify confirmation bias. In short it is fraught. And that is when we start with the presumption that there are real-world examples of case 2.

Under what circumstances would we put businesses into case 2? Presumably never except in the case of a truly public good--a rare thing indeed. Yet government's actions and the moral hazard that results implicitly create an environment where case 2 is common and pervasive. We are inappropriately continuing it with airlines, et al.

So this is why I title this as "parallel problems"--because we are making it as such. We are allowing a powerful group with concentrated benefit to dictate the narrative. We should call their bluff. If they are in case 1, then make the argument for being lent to at appropriate interest putting up appropriate collateral. Find a private source of funding even if that private source needs public backing in these extreme times. If they fail, then they were in fact case 2. That doesn't mean they get bailed out. It means they get extinguished to make room for another entity better suited for role they have failed at.

Harsh? Yes indeed. The market is harsh--by design. It is a feature of creative destruction. There is an old saying that in bear markets, stocks return to their rightful owners. The same can more generally be said of capital and economic downturns.

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