Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Charlie Munger: We Shouldn't Be Bitching About A Little Bailout!

I really do not agree what Charlie Munger have said this time.


Alice Shroeder has the following piece on Bloomberg.

  • You’ve gotta love a man who speaks his mind, even when he’s wrong.

    We “shouldn’t be bitching about a little bailout” of the banks, Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Vice Chairman Charles Munger told students at the University of Michigan on Sept. 14.

    That’s a strong statement, but Munger is one of those refreshing few who can be counted on to deliver his thoughts uncensored in words unminced.

    Munger feels the bank bailouts were “required to save your civilization.” He suggested that burdening the economy with bank failures would have results similar to the economic collapse in Germany after World War I and led to the rise of Adolf Hitler. Meanwhile, “the culture dies” if you bail out individuals. People in economic distress should “suck it up and cope.”

    Apart from what some might consider his tasteless hyperbole, the problem is the false dichotomy it presents. The choice wasn’t between the bailout or no bailout. It was between the bailout we financed, which didn’t resemble capitalism in any known form, and a bailout more intelligently executed.

    No one made us bail out shareholders along with the banks’ bondholders. We didn’t have to preserve institutions that are still too big to fail in any meaningful sense of the term. We could have propped them up temporarily, then recapitalized them as smaller, more manageable entities, with former equity holders assuming the cost of the risk they assumed.

    We missed the chance to reduce systemic risk by comprehensively rewriting regulation for the financial-services industry. Instead of withdrawing government guarantees, we increased them. So there are plenty of reasons to complain about the bailouts.

    Munger in Chief

    To give him credit, I’m pretty sure if we gave Munger unfettered dictatorial power, he would have structured the bailouts more intelligently than what actually took place. In his remarks, he wasn’t defending the form of the bailouts, only their size. If anything, “it should have been bigger,” he said.

    Munger’s reference to a massive bailout needed to ward off another Germany-style hyperinflation also wasn’t necessarily hyperbolic. It echoed his partner, Berkshire Chief Executive Officer Warren Buffett, whose ongoing theme is that we’ve experienced an “economic Pearl Harbor.”

    Both of these men look at the situation as impersonal oddsmakers. By this logic, if the damage from too much stimulus is tolerable, and the damage from too little stimulus is intolerable, the expected value of the outcomes reveals that we should run the lesser risk of overstimulating. This is throwing people off the lifeboat to keep it from sinking.

    Money Talks

    In spite of this logic, people may wonder whether Munger’s statements are influenced by Berkshire’s large holdings in Wells Fargo & Co. ($8.5 billion), the U.S.’s biggest home lender, as well as its $5 billion investment in Goldman Sachs Group Inc. It happens that Munger’s financial interests do line up with his words.

    If that’s not a coincidence, it’s probably because he puts his money where his mouth is rather than the other way round. In choosing sides between the opposing interests that inevitably arise in commerce, Munger and Buffett identify with the lender, not the borrower; with the bank, not the depositor; and that’s how they invest.

    It’s therefore not surprising that Munger focused on the vital role that banks play in society when he said that people should suck it up and cope. Maintaining the trust that binds creditors and debtors is essential to the security of a culture.

    Bad Incentives

    What’s unfortunate about this concern about bad incentives is that Munger didn’t extend it to qualify his support for the bank bailouts and the tremendous moral hazard they created. It may seem appropriate, in a Darwinian sense, to reward the thrifty savers by securing their deposits while leaving feckless borrowers to fend for themselves, until you consider that the banks were the worst abettors of the feckless borrowers.

    As for trust, financial institutions have so much leverage with their customers these days that the relationship is rarely based on reciprocal values. It’s inappropriate that the requirement of trustworthiness should run in only one direction, in favor of the bank.

    Munger’s prescription for the foreclosed masses suggests the result would be a form of justice that does us all a favor. Bailing out homeowners would be “shoveling out money to people who say ‘My life is a little harder than it used to be,’” Munger said.

    I’m all for self-reliance, and this perspective on misfortune deserves some latitude, coming as it does from a man who was raised during the Great Depression. I find it refreshing that Munger speaks his mind and is fearless of being found politically incorrect. In the end, though, coming from a billionaire, “suck it up” veers a bit too close to “let them eat cake.”



bonny b said...

If bailing out big banks and companies is for the greater good, then it will not be wrong to nationalize these entities. It is grossly unfair to taxpayers, and irrational, to leave them still under control of old shareholders who should be held responsible for the mess. But this latter action was allowed to take place. So are we not convinced that politicians and big business eat from and thrive in the same cesspools?? I'd say, let them eat cake!!

Moolah said...

Bonny: I am a fan of Charlie BUT these comments are so un-called for. They are tacky and tastless and it makes matter worse considering Munger's and BH's vested interest in Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs.