Professional Bailout No. Six
Ron Rowland, All Star Fund Trader 09.08.08, 2:49 PM ET
Austin, Texas -
Monday brought a sense of deja vu in the markets. How many financial sector bailouts can we have in one year? Quite a few, apparently. Six times in the last 13 months, the game has changed or appeared to change due to political intervention in the markets. Let's review:
August 2007: The Federal Reserve makes emergency cut in the discount rate
December 2007: Fed announces creation of special lending privileges for banks
January 2008: Another emergency 75 basis point rate cut
March 2008: Bear Stearns bailout
July 2008: First Fannie/Freddie rescue attempt
September 2008: Another Fannie/Freddie rescue attempt
The latest action effectively brings Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac under governmental control. Existing shareholders in these institutions are not, to our surprise, being totally wiped out--yet. There is still plenty of time for that to happen.
There is an even bigger loser in this transaction: anyone who owns U.S. Treasury bonds. Interest rates spiked higher, leaving the principal value of government debt sharply lower than it was last week. This is perfectly logical. Having just taken on the massive obligations of Fannie and Freddie, the Treasury's own credit rating had to take a hit. There are no free lunches.
In the big picture, the government's goal is clear: drive down mortgage rates and, more important, convince bankers to actually lend money to people who want to buy houses. Wholesale mortgage rates dropped dramatically Monday morning, so by that standard we have to say the bailout is doing what it is supposed to do. Whether the new liquidity will trickle down to individual borrowers is not yet clear.
Will the sixth bailout be the charm? The record of the last year is not very encouraging. Each action brought a market rally, but the rallies have been getting progressively weaker and shorter each time. As noted above, there are no free lunches. Risk cannot be eliminated, but it can be moved around. What is happening now is that the losses in the mortgage market are being transferred to what may be the only larger fixed-income sector: U.S. Treasury securities.
Since other kinds of bonds take their cue from the Treasury market, the bottom line is that interest rates on all kinds of debt will rise so that those who lost money in mortgage debt can be saved from loss. Is this a good thing? Maybe. But whatever it is, it is not capitalism. It is not what happens when markets are allowed to operate freely and without interference.
In a free market economy, people bear the cost of their own decisions, for better or worse. With that principle out the window, who will be next? This precedent is now in place: If an industry proves that its continued functioning is crucial to the economy and its failure will bring widespread pain, it is entitled to be saved from its otherwise inevitable demise by the collective action of society. The automobile industry is already making noise along these lines. Other applicants will no doubt follow.
For now, stocks are rallying around the globe. Monday morning's opening surge faded with remarkable alacrity, though, suggesting that at least a few investors remain skeptical. We count ourselves among them.
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