M. Friedman Goes to Washington

by Chidem Kurdas

Early in his career, long before he became a Nobel prizewinner and the household name for free market economist, Milton Friedman worked for the US Treasury. The following anecdote is from his 1998 memoir with his wife Rose, Two Lucky People.  This revealing example of how public officials operate illustrates, in Friedman’s words, “the interaction between bureaucratic self-seeking and supposedly objective analysis.”  It complements my previous post on whether politicians pursue the public good.

World War II had started. For Friedman and others at the Treasury, the main mission was to figure out how to finance the war effort while avoiding inflation.  Continue reading

Dodd Liquidation Panel

by Chidem Kurdas

There is one new regulation that is truly needed—a way to wind down, without major disruption to markets, failing broker-dealers and other financial companies. The new financial industry bill introduced by Senator Christopher Dodd claims to do this and solve the “too-big-to-fail” problem.

Reading the particulars of the bill, however, makes one queasy. To use a metaphor, what’s needed is a commitment to defensive war when necessary. What this and a related bill  sneak under the radar is authority for pre-emptive war—with all the wide-open discretion that implies.

Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy in September 2008 had a big impact on markets largely because the assets of its clients got tied up in courts, not just in the US but in the UK. With their capital frozen in years-long litigation, the clients – in particular hedge funds – sold securities to raise money. This selling put downward pressure on markets.

So, instituting a process by which large financial companies can be shut down without a lengthy bankruptcy case would reduce the impact of failures and get rid of the notion that investment banks need to be bailed out—expeditious and orderly winding down of a failed firm is the obvious solution.

While this process may be similar to established procedure for dealing with insolvent commercial banks, broker-dealers don’t have Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.-insured deposits. Their customers get only limited aid from the Securities Investor Protection Corp.—as the Bernard Madoff investors discovered.

The bill would establish a liquidation fund financed by the industry and authorize the appointment of FDIC as receiver for insolvent companies, with SIPC acting as trustee for broker-dealers. All that sounds reasonable. You don’t notice the danger until you’re deep into the 1,336 page bill. Continue reading