GM Engine Overhaul

Never fear for Rick Wagoner. He’s walking away from GM with a $23 million pension. It’s the rank-and-file GM worker who is more likely to suffer.

Stupid Alert: David Brooks today argues that restructuring doesn’t work. The automakers have been “restructuring” for years, he says. He prophesies that

The most likely outcome, sad to say, is some semiserious restructuring plan, with or without court involvement, to be followed by long-term government intervention and backdoor subsidies forever. That will amount to the world’s most expensive jobs program. It will preserve the overcapacity in the market, create zombie companies and thus hurt Ford. It will raise the protectionist threat as politicians seek to protect the car companies they now run.

What should happen? Brooks says,

It would have been better to keep a distance from G.M. and prepare the region for a structured bankruptcy process. Instead, Obama leapt in. His intentions were good, but getting out with honor will require a ruthless tenacity that is beyond any living politician.

Let’s go back to what the Anonymous Liberal wrote yesterday:

When a company files for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 of Bankruptcy Code, it doesn’t just disappear into a puff of smoke. The goal of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy is a reorganization of the company, and that reorganization process is overseen at every step by the government. Upon filing of the Chapter 11 petition, a federal bankruptcy judge takes jurisdiction and all important decisions from that point forward must by approved by the court. The officers and executives of the company are often replaced. Sometimes a trustee is appointed to run things. All sorts of business issues get litigated during the process. Eventually, if things go according to plan, a plan of reorganization is approved by the judge and the reorganized company emerges from bankruptcy.

In other words, bankruptcy is a process by which a company relinquishes ultimate control of its destiny and its operations to the government in exchange for protection from its creditors. It gives the government a veto power over everything. What the Obama administration is doing right now is no different in principle from what a bankruptcy judge does; they’re just trying to do it outside of the formal bankruptcy process because they believe that doing so will minimize the harm to GM and the overall economy.

As I understand it, the concern is that if a big automaker actually did go into formal bankruptcy, consumers would be frightened away from buying the products. The other concern is that, at the moment, the automaker would be unlikely to get the loans needed to continue operations while the bankruptcy was in process.

Brooks insists that GM already was “restructuring” and had been for some time. I assume Brooks defines “restructuring” as “trying to wriggle out of Union contracts,” because that’s about all I saw the old GM management doing. Brooks continues,

Corporate welfare rarely works when the government invests in rising firms. The odds are really grim when it tries to subsidize fading ones. (In the ’80s, Chrysler already had the successful K-car in the pipeline.)

I’m not sure if he thinks that what the Obama Administration is doing amounts to corporate welfare, or if just shoveling money at Detroit while the old management floundered is corporate welfare.

Wingnut hysteria to the contrary, I don’t think President Obama or anyone else in Washington really wants to be running a car company right now. My interpretation is that the administration is putting GM through the steps of a bankruptcy while reducing the risk that GM will fail completely.

Beep Beep

“I believe that the power to make money is a gift from God.” -John D. Rockefeller

I ran into that quote this morning, on the Forbes website. Forbes seems to think it exemplifies wisdom.

Anyway, this morning President Obama announced a policy toward the automobile industry, GM and Chrysler in particular, that lays out what the administration thinks needs to be done to put the automobile industry back on its own four wheels without subsidizing it forever and ever. Alex Koppelman has a succinct explanation of the policy.

Also at Salon, Andrew Leonard asks the question on many minds — Why so hard on the Rust Belt, and so easy on Wall Street?

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s plan to create a market price for toxic assets has been widely lambasted as a scheme to paper over banking sector insolvency. If Obama can force Wagoner to resign, based on his record, then why haven’t Citigroup’s Vikram Pandit and Bank of America’s Ken Lewis been forced to step down? If the White House can declare that G.M.’s bond-holders must accept they will not be repaid in full what they are owed, then why aren’t Citigroup and Bank of America’s debt-holders being told the same thing?

Well, yeah?

Leonard cites Simon Johnson’s article “The Quiet Coup” at The Atlantic, which argues there’s a long pattern of nations being unwilling to squeeze the financial sector hard enough to correct crises such as ours. The Obama Administration appears to be falling into this pattern. The financial team has excessively close ties to Wall Street. Obama policies are crafted to prop up failing executives, not resolve the financial crisis.

However, Leonard continues,

But it is not the only possible explanation. There are a few brave, or perhaps foolhardy, analysts who are willing to argue that the administration’s approach to the banking sector could actually be preparation for the ultimate endgame of nationalization or government-expedited bankruptcy restructuring, rather than the free pass to the banks it currently appears to be.

In this scenario the ongoing stress tests, in conjunction with the price discovery mechanism for toxic mortgage-backed securities that is at the heart of of the Geithner plan to fix banking balance sheets, will reveal once and for all which banks are truly insolvent and cannot survive in their current form. Having established that beyond a doubt — much as the government’s analysis of G.M. and Chrysler’s situation has established pretty conclusively that they cannot continue as currently structured — there will be no other alternative than a government takeover.

See also The Double-Standard Question Haunting Today’s Detroit Announcement.

Glorious Revolution, Comrades!

Or, maybe not. The CEO of GM is resigning at the behest of the Obama Administration. Some elements of the Right already are working themselves into a frenzy over the communist takeover, although other elements are fairly subdued. I haven’t seen much commentary from anyone who actually understands anything, so I’m withholding judgment until I learn more.

Via Joan Walsh, there’s an article on the financial oligarchy at the Atlantic that I haven’t read yet, but it looks interesting.

Meanwhile, let’s see what the real communists are up to

A cyber spy network based mainly in China hacked into classified documents from government and private organizations in 103 countries, including the computers of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan exiles, Canadian researchers said Saturday.

Nasty stuff.

The Press Conference

I missed last night’s televised press conference. What did you think? I’m reading a critique at the Anonymous Liberal, and it sounds as if the questions sucked.

The “anger moment” seems to be getting a lot of notice. Ewen MacAskill writes for The Guardian:

The CNN White House correspondent, Ed Henry, who asked the question, also suggested that the New York attorney-general, Andrew Cuomo, was doing a better job of dealing with AIG than the White House.

Obama gave a general answer and Henry again asked why he had taken a few days to tell the public. The normally cool and controlled president replied sharply: “It took us a couple of days because I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak.”

The exchange was unusual, both because it is rare to hear US journalists ask Obama hard questions and rare to see Obama in a testy mood. Much of the rest of the press conference was so carefully choreographed, with a long opening statement, it seemed at times like an extended political broadcast

See also Mike Madden at Salon.

So What’s Wrong With Being Sweden?

Kevin G. Hall writes for McClatchy Newspapers:

If the plan doesn’t work, the next step might be nationalizing some banks, as some high-profile analysts have advocated, including former Treasury Secretary James Baker, pointing to Sweden’s successful exercise in the early 1990s.

Geithner rejects the parallel.

“We’re the United States of America. We are not Sweden,” he said, arguing that the U.S. financial system is much larger and more complex than any other and includes the world’s largest capital markets and many nonbank financial institutions.

Which may be the problem. Maybe the whole financial sector needs to be taken down a few pegs.

I’ve mentioned Thomas Geoghegan’s “Infinite Debt” article in the April issue of Harper’s a couple of times. Very simply, the financial sector and the financial services industry is eating America. Directly or indirectly, we’re all indebted to and working for the financial industry. We’re turning into sharecroppers, basically, except the “crop” is money.

In a balanced economy, the financial sector should support manufacturing and labor. Instead, the financial sector drains manufacturing and labor.

What we’re looking at here is capitalism hitting the rocks. Fifty years ago the world seemed locked in a giant struggle between capitalism and communism. Communism collapsed from the inside; it is not a sustainable economic system.

Now its capitalism’s turn. I am all for private ownership and entrepreneurship and all that, but if capitalism isn’t kept in check it will eat itself. That’s what we’re seeing; capitalism eating itself. The financial sector metastasized and is destroying the economic body.

On the up side, Binyamin Appelbaum and David Cho report for the Washington Post that

The Obama administration is considering asking Congress to give the Treasury secretary unprecedented powers to initiate the seizure of non-bank financial companies, such as large insurers, investment firms and hedge funds, whose collapse would damage the broader economy, according to an administration document.

This suggests the Obama Administration hasn’t ruled out taking stronger measures. It would be good for the administration to declare right now that if the Geithner plan doesn’t do the job, receivership is the next step. That would be reassuring to me, at least.

About the Plan

The Timothy Geithner financial rescue plan has been released. I’ve been cruising around look for people who understand the financial sector for comments.

Consensus: Yeah, right.

The most optimistic analysis is Brad DeLong’s, here updated in a post titled “I Think Paul Krugman Is Wrong.” Professor DeLong admits he is uncomfortable disagreeing with Professor Krugman, however. Professor Krugman’s column today was written before all the details were released, but he is opposed to the parts of the plan released earlier. Economist’s View has a roundup of reactions from economists, most of them pessimistic.

No one on the blogophere, Left or Right, is happy about it. Of course, the Right wouldn’t like anything Obama does, meritorious or not, so there’s no point reading them. But the Left generally is in agreement with James K. Galbraith at Washington Monthly, who writes, “Geithner’s banking plan would prolong the state of denial.”

The big concern, expressed by many, is that when Geithner’s plan flops (as most predict it will) President Obama will have lost the political capital necessary to do what really needs to be done, which is nationalize the bleepers.

Are We Depressed Yet?

Brad DeLong has a Geithner Plan FAQ that makes it sound as if it could work, although Professor DeLong’s still appears to be a minority view. Paul Krugman responds to DeLong and says he’s not buying it.

Frank Rich says, in effect, that Obama’s attempts at communication are fine, but the financial team has way too many ties to the old Wall Street boy’s network and is not going nearly far enough to overhaul the system. I cannot argue with that.

Tom Friedman wrote a reasonably perceptive “pox on both their houses” column that some rightie bloggers are selectively quoting as a slam on Barack Obama and the Democrats. But no, Friedman is pissed at everyone. So for the record, here is a paragraph the right-wing bloggers did not quote:

I saw Eric Cantor, a Republican House leader, on CNBC the other day, and the entire interview consisted of him trying to exploit the A.I.G. situation for partisan gain without one constructive thought. I just kept staring at him and thinking: “Do you not have kids? Do you not have a pension that you’re worried about? Do you live in some gated community where all the banks will be O.K., even if our biggest banks go under? Do you think your party automatically wins if the country loses? What are you thinking?”

Thinking? Who’s thinking? Anyway, a number of rightie bloggers gleefully link to Friedman’s column as evidence that Obama is failing, which is what they are rooting for. Their side wins if he loses, you know.

See also Comments From Left Field.

What’s It All About

From Matt Taibbi’s latest article at Rolling Stone:

The mistake most people make in looking at the financial crisis is thinking of it in terms of money, a habit that might lead you to look at the unfolding mess as a huge bonus-killing downer for the Wall Street class. But if you look at it in purely Machiavellian terms, what you see is a colossal power grab that threatens to turn the federal government into a kind of giant Enron — a huge, impenetrable black box filled with self-dealing insiders whose scheme is the securing of individual profits at the expense of an ocean of unwitting involuntary shareholders, previously known as taxpayers. …

…So it’s time to admit it: We’re fools, protagonists in a kind of gruesome comedy about the marriage of greed and stupidity. And the worst part about it is that we’re still in denial — we still think this is some kind of unfortunate accident, not something that was created by the group of psychopaths on Wall Street whom we allowed to gang-rape the American Dream.

Well, yeah.

Although I might quibble with some details, I think on the whole Taibbi gets to the core of the matter better than most. His article also made me think of the Harper’s article by Thomas Geoghegan I mentioned last week, “Infinite Debt,” which you can now read online in PDF form. [Oops, it appears the PDF is available only to subscribers. Sorry.] In a nutshell, the financial sector has eaten the other sectors, and our national wealth has been hijacked into a vast scheme of money chasing money. Less and less of our wealth is being used to create tangible things like food or consumer products; more and more is plowed into financial investment instruments that are, basically, air.

And ordinary citizens have been sucked into a treadmill of debt bondage. I keep thinking of that old Tennessee Ernie Ford song —

You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go;
I owe my soul to the company store.

Maybe we didn’t see all of the details, but many of us have been viewing the bigger picture for some time. We unhappy few are called “liberals,” and of course nobody listened to us.

What’s remarkable is the degree to which apparently intelligent people still don’t see the bigger picture. These include, unfortunately, the Obama Administration, which appears to be in tweak rather than overhaul mode.

Not to say he is “apparently intelligent,” because he isn’t, but much of What’s Wrong With America is exemplified by the meathead anchor, CNBC’s Mark Haines, interviewing Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) in this video:

So to Power Tool John’s question, “Are We a Banana Republic?” I’d say yes, and for some time, but not for the reasons he thinks.

And you want to know how we gave it all away? Memory Lane time —

[Video no longer available, but I believe it showed Ronald Reagan claiming government is the problem.]

The disconnect in Saint Ronald’s thinking was that government is not a hindrance to self-government. It is the very tool the founders left us that enables self-government. By persuading people that government is irrelevant, Saint Ronald enabled the colossal power grab that is strangling our country. Forget the Road to Serfdom; we’re serfs already, and have been for years.

Public Stocks

Josh Marshall has a point —

This seems like just another example of perverse outcomes from the ‘worst of both worlds’ approach we’re taking to the whole finance industry bailout — keep the same people in charge of the institutions, keep effectively insolvent institutions afloat, but throw a lot of federal dollars in their direction and put in place fairly draconian tax provisions for money that’s spent in ways we find either wasteful or offensive.

stockWell, yes, probably. People are enraged, and their rage is focused on only a small number of those who are responsible for what’s gone wrong. Indeed, some of the people being penalized probably were not involved personally.

On the other hand, sometimes we human have to act our what we feel. This is why there are rituals, religious and otherwise. An individual may feel helpless, but if he can get together with a lot of other people to make a display of strength, he feels empowered. This is true even if the display of strength is just theater, just ritual. Right now, I think many Americans feel a need for a punishment ritual. The people who mishandled the financial sector may never see a day in prison, or in the stocks, or experience any sort of genuine deprivation. But a public shaming of somebody would at least make us feel better.

On the other hand, the public shaming shouldn’t be policy. Policy needs to be a genuine remedy, not a ritual. Whether they deserve to be punished or not, punishing the AIG bonus babies isn’t going to solve anything.

On the third hand — appearances matter. This is what Eugene Robinson wrote about today.

There has been a steady flow of news indicating that Wall Street doesn’t realize that the Era of Excess is over, the latest coming yesterday with a Bloomberg News report that the CEO of troubled Citigroup, Vikram Pandit, plans to spend about $10 million redecorating the firm’s executive offices. I know that the company has made economies and that Pandit is working for $1 a year. I just think that after accepting $45 billion in bailout money, I’d cancel any improvement project that couldn’t be accomplished with a trip to Home Depot.

It’s as if we’re dealing with a puppy who will not stop making puddles on the kitchen floor. Whenever I hear of another Wall Street exec who doesn’t “get it,” I want to whack him with a rolled up newspaper. (I wouldn’t do that to a puppy, mind you.)

Anyway, back to what Josh was saying — I agree with Charlie Cray that we should stop messing around with the bozos who caused the problem, and instead “put AIG into full receivership and break it up.” That’ll learn ’em. See also Simon Johnson and James Kwak, “Off With the Bankers,” in the New York Times.

Congress Does Something

The House actually did something. Reuters reports,

Responding to public and political outrage to the bonuses after the insurer received a government bailout up to $180 billion, lawmakers voted 328-93 for a bill to impose a 90 percent tax on bonuses for executives whose incomes exceed $250,000.

The tax would apply to executives of any company that received at least $5 billion in government bailout money.

From the Associated Press:

In all, 243 Democrats and 85 Republicans voted “yes” on the bill. It was opposed by six Democrats and 87 Republicans. . . . although a number of Republicans cast “no” votes against the measure at first, there was a heavy GOP migration to the “yes” side in the closing moments.

The six Dems who voted “no” were Bean, Kissell, McMahon, Minnick, Mitchell and Snyder. If any of those congress critters are your’n, tell ’em what you think.

As I keyboard, the 85 Republicans who voted “yes” are drafting a letter of apology to Rush Limbaugh.

At the Washington Post, Brady Dennis writes about the bonus babies of AIG, huddling in their office building feeling misunderstood.

The handful of souls who championed the firm’s now-infamous credit-default swaps are, by nearly every account, long since departed. Those left behind to clean up the mess, the majority of whom never lost a dime for AIG, now feel they have been sold out by their Congress and their president.

“They’ve chosen to throw us under the bus,” said a Financial Products executive, one of several who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals. “They have vilified us.”

They say what is missing from this week’s hysteria is perspective. The very handsome retention payments they received over the past week were set in motion early last year when the firm’s former president, Joe Cassano, was on his way out the door. Financial Products was already running into trouble on its risky credit bets, and the year ahead looked grim. People were weighing offers from other firms, and AIG executives feared that too many departures could lead to disaster.

I remember reading that Marie Antoinette had a new dress made to wear at her beheading. That may not be true, but for some reason it pops into my mind.

Listen, guys, “disaster” has already arrived. The ship has struck the iceberg. Just because the water hasn’t reached the upper decks yet doesn’t mean life can go on as usual. It’s time to put down the brandy and cigars and work with the rest of us to keep the boat afloat, or else we’re all going to end up in the water grabbing for ice floes. Is that clear?