Friday, March 6, 2009

Amazingly, Obama Is Repeating Bush's Worst Market Mistakes

What is most astounding about President Barack Obama's radical economic recovery program isn't its breadth, but its continuation of the most destructive policies of the Bush administration. These Bush policies were in themselves repudiations of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Mr. Obama's hero.

The most disastrous Bush policy that Mr. Obama is perpetuating is mark-to-market or "fair value" accounting for banks, insurance companies and other financial institutions. The idea seems harmless: Financial institutions should adjust their balance sheets and their capital accounts when the market value of the financial assets they hold goes up or down.

That works when you have very liquid securities, such as Treasurys, or the common stock of IBM or GE. But when the credit crisis hit in 2007, there was no market for subprime securities and other suspect assets. Yet regulators and auditors kept pressing banks and other financial firms to knock down the book value of this paper, even in cases where these obligations were being fully serviced in the payment of principal and interest. Thus, under mark-to-market, even non-suspect assets are being artificially knocked down in value for regulatory capital (the amount of capital required by regulators for industries like banks and life insurance).

Banks and life insurance companies that have positive cash flows now find themselves in a death spiral. Of the more than $700 billion that financial institutions have written off, almost all of it has been book write-downs, not actual cash losses. When banks or insurers write down the value of their assets they have to get new capital. And the need for new capital is a signal to ratings agencies that these outfits might deserve a credit-rating reduction.

So although banks have twice the amount of cash on hand that they did a year ago, they lend only under duress, or apply onerous conditions that would warm Tony Soprano's heart. This is because they know that every time they make a loan or an investment there is a risk of a book write-down, even if the loan is unimpaired.

If this rigid mark-to-market accounting had been in effect during the banking trouble in the early 1990s, almost every major commercial bank in the U.S. would have collapsed because of shaky Latin American and commercial real estate loans. We would have had a second Great Depression.

But put aside for a moment the absurdity of trying to price assets in a disrupted or non-existent market, of not distinguishing between distress prices and "normal" prices. Regulatory capital by its definition should take the long view when it comes to valuation; day-to-day fluctuations shouldn't matter. Assets should be kept on the books at the price they were obtained, as long as the assets haven't actually been impaired.

Mark-to-market accounting does just the opposite. When times are good, it artificially boosts banks' capital, thereby encouraging more investing and lending. In a downturn it sets off a devastating deflation.

Mark-to-market accounting is the principal reason why our financial system is in a meltdown. The destructiveness of mark-to-market -- which was in force before the Great Depression -- is why FDR suspended it in 1938. It was unnecessarily destroying banks.

But bad ideas never die. Mark-to-market was resurrected by the Financial Accounting Standards Board and became effective in the fall of 2007 (FASB rule 157) to the approval of the Bush administration, its Treasury Department, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Even as FASB 157 began to take its toll on financial institutions last year, Mr. Bush refused to kill or suspend it. When Congress voiced displeasure last fall, the administration and regulatory authorities made some cosmetic changes, but the poisonous essence remained.

Another horrific Bush policy that Mr. Obama has left untouched concerns short selling. In 1938, the SEC, created by FDR, enacted the so-called uptick rule, which held that investors could not short a stock unless it went up in price. In July 2007, the SEC, whose commissioners were handpicked by the White House, got rid of the rule. Market volatility exploded.

Compounding this lunacy was the SEC's inexplicable failure to enforce the rule against "naked" short selling. Before an investor can short a stock, he is supposed to borrow the shares and pay a broker or stockholder a fee. What sellers soon realized was that the SEC was turning a blind eye to naked short-selling, thus adding even more pressure to beleaguered bank equities. Short sellers quickly saw how mark-to-market made seemingly invincible companies vulnerable to destruction. They picked their targets and relentlessly sold financial stocks short.

If the president really takes Roosevelt's legacy seriously, he should suspend mark-to-market accounting rules, restore the uptick rule, and enforce the prohibition against naked short selling. If he doesn't, historians will look back in utter amazement at Mr. Obama's preservation of Mr. Bush's worst economic policies.

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