With its regulatory overhaul of the U.S. financial system, the Obama administration has granted the federal government new powers to take over systemically important businesses, but has done so in a way that may well mask a potentially dangerous drift toward American state capitalism.
The administration’s 88-page “white paper,” released last Wednesday (June 17), goes a long way in identifying most of the weak links in the regulatory chain that was supposed to protect America from a financial freefall. But, as always, the devil is in the details.
In 85 of those 88 pages, extensive fixes are put forth in an attempt to create additional financial institution transparency, to bolster consumer protections and to enhance supervisory oversight. But, in fewer than four of those pages, without any detail, the white paper calls for a “regime” to “provide for the ability to stabilize a failing institution by providing loans, purchasing assets from the firm, guaranteeing the liabilities of the firm, or making equity investments in the firm.”
The blind spot in the need to create such a “regime” if it isn’t intentional – is the missed assumption that all of the reforms supposed to constitute “A New Foundation” will still not be enough to arrest the failure of systemically important firms. The black spot on the administration and legislators’ records may ultimately be their complicity in not breaking up so-called “too-big-to-fail” institutions, Instead, the current and past administrations and elected officials coddled these firms and allowed them to continue to grow in both size and influence, to the point that they became large enough and important enough – as well as frail enough – to end up as assets in an American-style, taxpayer-funded sovereign wealth fund.
A Threat to the Economy’s Free-Market Foundation
Democratic capitalism – the foundation of our economic system – has two inherent characteristics that, if left unimpeded by government interference, result in almost-certain economic success. The first is the ideal of free markets and the other is the notion, popularized by Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, of . Building from the foundation is a straightforward process: Free markets will themselves engender creative destruction, maximizing the ability of innovative entrepreneurs to destroy the hegemony of existing companies by creating and delivering new and better products and services to a free-to-choose public. Government coddling or the takeover of failing institutions destroys both of these foundational principles.
Keeping our eyes on the prize necessitates not impeding free markets or the process of creative destruction. And while prudent regulation is absolutely necessary to check and arrest the ever-present bad seeds from choking our field of dreams, allowing the pendulum to swing too far in the direction of government control subjects the democratic capitalist model to attack by socialist influences. And that assault is already underway.
In the face of financial devastation in America and throughout the world, government intervention has been a welcome intrusion meant to lessen the pain of lost savings, foreclosed homes, violated security, broken dreams and the horrendous fear that many of us will never rise out of the hole created by the implosion of trusted systems we rely upon for our way of life.
The danger now is that welcoming the seeming suave of government intervention may embolden some misguided politicians and the vested-interest big-government/big-money crowd to permanently corrupt our once free markets. Government intervention has the potential of destroying the creative processes by undermining entrepreneurs and small businesses to protect an emerging and quickly growing portfolio of government-controlled assets.
If it’s not intentional, why does the administration’s regulatory reform package lead us directly down this path? By leaving in place discredited supervisory bodies and the failed regime of ineffective regulatory officers and soldiers, does the assured future failure of protected and coddled firms signal a policy paradigm shift towards more government intervention, control and ownership of giant, systemically important firms? Are we headed towards a more socialist economic model?
I brought these concerns to Bill Singer of BrokeAnd Broker.com, a partner at powerhouse law firm Stark & Stark, a veteran regulatory lawyer, staunch advocate for the rights of smaller broker-dealer firms, registered persons and defrauded investors, and a regular commentator on television and Forbes.com panelist.
“Look, I’d love to rail against creeping socialism and state capitalism, and you may well be right – that may be the sad legacy,” Singer said. “While it would be expedient to say that I don’t like it (and, frankly, I truly don’t), I like the concept that someone, somewhere has a cord to pull in the event of an emergency – the problem is whether there is anything at the end of that line when it’s pulled, or whether it merely sets off a series of contingency steps that will only reach some final stage long after the harm is done.”
When Too-Big-To-Fail Becomes Too-Big-To-Succeed
Whether it is an intentional shift towards a more socialist economic model, or the drift from the fallout of well-intended government assistance to save jobs, firms or industries, there’s an easier, more familiar and well-proven path that should be cleared and undertaken. Start by looking backwards. If too-big-to-fail firms constitute systemic threats, don’t allow firms to get too big. It really is that simple. There is no need and no place for socialist tendencies in this country if we already know that free markets create a level playing field for all willing participants and then take steps to make sure that they are not crowed out by vested interests that are backed and protected by the government.
Regulatory reforms must ensure that free markets remain free. Part of what’s necessary is to reform the tendencies of firms to overdo the concept of economies of scale. Bigger isn’t always better if it crowds out the processes of creative destruction, the drain in the tub that can overflow and undermine the floor and foundation of democratic capitalism.
It was big banks, big super-regional banks, big investment banks and big mortgage originators that deposited us into the economic sinkhole in which we’re presently mired. Community banks and small loan originators didn’t conceive of the weapons of mass destruction, but they were forced to compete with the big brothers of business by engaging in many of the same practices and investments as a way to remain competitive or be destroyed by the sprawl of bigger, bolder, and badder brethren. Why not disallow firms to get so big they swallow or destroy all competition?
To those that argue that larger and better-capitalized foreign firms will command the high ground, I say nonsense. If we want to compete with outsized international firms, we already have a mechanism to do that. For example, banks already syndicate large loans. By having even more banks participate in syndicated loans, it spreads the credit risk across a wider array of institutions. And maybe if our automotive industry hadn’t been allowed to get so large and cumbersome, we’d have more auto firms offering more innovative products and supporting a more robust industry of manufacturers, dealers and suppliers.
There’s a Way, But is There the Will?
Of course, without being overly protectionist, prudent legislation and regulation could easily control the sprawl of overly ambitious monster foreign interests. As politicians look at the power and potential of sovereign wealth funds, there may well be an inclination to compete with them by facilitating America’s own version of such a fund. Without enunciated exit plans from the asset control and ownership now enjoyed by the U.S. government, we’re going to move in that direction. A U.S. sovereign wealth fund can carry another name – state capitalism.
By keeping the old guard on duty and only giving them new binoculars, we may well see the next set of failures on the horizon – but will be powerless to stop them. Whether intended or unintended, the result will be the destruction of free markets and entrepreneurship.
We would do well to express our outrage at the prospects of such an outcome long before the debate goes behind closed doors and we end up with an oligopoly run by a cadre of self-serving officers.
Or, as best put by Singer, the veteran regulatory attorney: “Unless we are prepared to clean house – to purge ourselves of the majority of politicians now in power and to substantively overhaul the boards of directors of most public companies into meaningful, hands-on overseers, then we’re just deluding ourselves,” he said. “This isn’t merely a battle to re-start American capitalism; it is a battle for the heart and soul of our way of life. While it would be popular to suggest that we still have a fighting chance, I think we also need to wonder whether we have the political will to implement the wholesale changes that are necessary.”
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News and Related Story Links:
Money Morning News Analysis:
Obama’s Financial System Overhaul Would Give the Fed Broad Powers Over Wall Street.
Money Morning News Analysis:
Wall Street vs. Main Street: The Regulatory Battle Begins Tomorrow.
U.S. Too Big to Fail Policy.
Money Morning Economic Forecasting Series (2008):
Outlook 2008: Three Ways to Profit From Sovereign Wealth Funds – the “Next Wall Street”.
Socialist Economic Model.
Bill Singer Bio.
Economies of Scale.
About the Author
Shah Gilani boasts a financial pedigree unlike any other. He ran his first hedge fund in 1982 from his seat on the floor of the Chicago Board of Options Exchange. When options on the Standard & Poor's 100 began trading on March 11, 1983, Shah worked in "the pit" as a market maker.
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