Wednesday, June 24, 2009

RIP: Health care's public option

If you support the inclusion of a public option in the impending health care reform bill and you want to feel depressed, try this analysis, by Nate Silver, of the likely impact of PAC contributions on the votes of currently "undecided" Senators. Silver concludes that a bill that includes a public option has scarcely a chance of coming out of the Senate.

Of course, it doesn't help at all that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is second from the top on the list of those likely to be influenced by PAC money, and hence not likely at all to take any sort of leadership role on behalf of passing the bill the president seems to want.

I say "seems to want" because I'm not really clear on his level of commitment. He's been making the right noises in public, but is he twisting any arms behind the scenes? It's just that Obama's standard operating procedure seems to be making all the right noises in public, then backing off when public attention is diverted elsewhere. We've seen it with government transparency, Guantanamo, and other issues that nobody outside the civil liberties crowd is paying attention to anymore.

Yes, a substantial majority of the public wants a public option, and Obama is invariably responsive to public opinion -- in public. He's also aware that with or without the public option, he gets to be "the president who gave us (nearly) universal health insurance." Is it truly in his self-interest to push for a plan that actually could work -- by bringing down the cost of health care? Maybe. But probably not.

This is America, where substance always is secondary to appearance. So what if we get "health care reform" that consists entirely of forcing individuals and business owners, subsidized by taxpayers, to shovel even more money into the coffers of the HMOs and big pharma? Who cares? Obama?

We'll see. According to Silver, the public option needs eleven more votes in the Senate. How many senators will sign on? A lot of that depends on how hard the president is willing to work for those votes.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Regulatory reform?

I've been reading as much as I can about the Obama plan for regulatory reform. I'm not happy.

As usual with this administration, there is a good deal less on the table than one might hope to find. The initial approach, which was to bring all the relevant lobbyists together and let them slug it out, seemed like it might have been a good idea. There were many competing interests, and reason to hope they might neutralize one another. The administration could claim it had "listened," and then go on to do what really was needed.

Ooops, pardon me! For a second there, I forgot it was the Obama administration, which works from the first principle, "It is a far, far better thing to look like you're doing something than actually to do something. Getting things done just gets people pissed off."

Making the Fed regulator in chief is Obamanomics 101:
  • The Fed is an "independent" agency. Hence, if it screws up, the administration can duck all blame -- especially while Bush appointee Ben Bernanke is in charge.
  • The Fed is a creature of Wall Street, so no matter how much the financial industry may whine about oppressive regulation, you can bet they're not especially upset.
  • Larry Summers would love to be the next Fed chairman, and he'd love it even more if the job included additional autocratic powers.
For populist pandering, there will be the new Consumer Financial Protection Agency, charged with protecting us little guys from predatory bankers and their ilk. The predators, of course, are playing their role by pretending to be upset -- but the likelihood of the new agency having the power, the funds, or the political support to do anything significant is minimal.

Meanwhile, in Switzerland...

According to Carter Dougherty, in the New York Times, "Swiss financial regulators said Thursday that they were considering assuming new emergency powers that would allow them to break up large banks to wind down troubled business units that are not essential to the economy." After their UBS and Credit Suisse problems, the Swiss have decided that they've had enough of banks that are 'too big to fail.'"

They'll start by "working with" the banks -- but it sounds like, in the absence of real cooperation, they'll just go ahead and do it. Yay, Switzerland!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Regulation, again...

Well, I'm still waiting to find out just how "customized" a derivative has to be to escape regulation. So far, it sounds like the bankers will be a lot happier with the outcome than I will.

So far, a substantial majority of the derivatives that have been created have been "customized" to one extent or another -- and the bankers insist that such customization is vital to "serving the interests" of both buyers and sellers. Okay. It makes sense that different CDOs requires different terms and due dates. It makes sense that different credit default swaps will insure different levels of risk to different degrees. Swell. Go ahead and customize them.

I also understand why it might be hard to write regulations for customized derivatives -- especially since we can expect that their creators are sure to "customize" them in ways that would help them avoid any regulations Treasury might write. On the other hand, I don't understand why they can't be sold like other securities -- in an open market, with full disclosure.

The pivotal word in that last sentence, in case you didn't notice the double emphasis, is "can't." Clearly, they can be sold like other securities -- the only problem being that the profit margins of the originating banks would be sharply reduced. Well, we "can't" let that happen, now -- can we?

Hey! Obama! Yes we can!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Regulation and the Free Market

Just in case you haven't noticed yet, Friedman and Greenspan were wrong. Free markets are extremely fragile. Left untended and unregulated, they can't survive -- they succumb to what economists call "market failure." The only institutions powerful enough to prevent market failure are governments, and the only way they have to do that is through economic regulation.

The chief component of the market failure that created our current economic crisis was lack of information. For markets to operate properly, buyers and sellers must be aware of the real value of what they buy and sell. In the case of derivatives, as we now know, that information just wasn't available. Not only were buyers misled by the ratings agencies -- who were paid by the sellers -- but derivative sales were private. Buyers had no means of knowing what other buyers were paying for very similar instruments. The derivatives market was totally obscure, and totally unregulated.

"Then, let there be regulation," intones Obama. "Right on it, boss," cries His Boy In Treasury, Timmy G. And there shall be regulation. Effective regulation? Um, well...

Some Democrats in Congress, like Senator Tom Harkin (whom I recall supporting in a presidential primary a great many years ago), want all derivatives to be traded in an open exchange -- like stocks or commodities. That would provide full transparency, and make a repeat performance of the current mess just about impossible.

Timmy G. has another idea, though -- derivatives would be traded through privately managed "clearinghouses," which would make the trades, well, sort of semi-transparent. More complicated, "customized" securities, however -- like the credit default swaps that brought down AIG -- would remain outside the system, and totally opaque.

You get one guess: which plan does the industry prefer? Here's a hint: if buyers get to know what the securities really are worth, they won't pay as much for them.

Maybe Obama will surprise me, and get behind the idea of an open exchange. Somehow, though, I doubt it. Bill Clinton signed the December 2000 bill exempting most derivatives from regulatory oversight, and so can claim a fat share of the responsibility for our current problems. Barack Obama, who took even more in campaign contributions from the financial industry than Clinton did, is not likely to be a major improvement.

As Dick Durbin pointed out recently, "the banks ... are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place." I'm afraid that probably is true of the White House as well.

Well, so much for free markets. How can markets be free when the government that's supposed to protect them is bought and paid for?