I was asked to give my ideas to Obama's new Transition Economic Advisory Board. That sounds way more presitgious than it really is because I am no way directly involved. Below is the email I sent for those who would be interested:
Unfortunately that group seems way to big to actually get something accomplished but we can always hope. Feel free to cherry pick or plagiarise anything below. In my mind the financial crises is over. The government has taken on all systemic U.S. financial risk out of the private sector and put it onto the government balance sheet. This was massively mishandled. Now you have an unfolding economic crises that is much more difficult to deal with than a financial crises.
I asked a buddy what he thought and his three word response was "buy a bunker." Unfortunately that may be the best answer but lets pretend for a second like somebody can do something to help.
I am going to split up this email into two parts. I believe Charlie Munger got it right when he said "invert, always invert." So I will invert the problem in the first part and then offer ideas in the second part. The reason inverting is so powerful (though unfortunately rarely done) is it forces you to think about collateral damage of various actions and you often see things working backwards you would not otherwise see. All of this in an email response is simplistic and all ideas can be vetted out much further.
First Part (Inversion)
What is at the basic core of capitalism? It is a system that fundamentally relies on 1) trust and 2) supply and demand. One is soft, kind of airy, and can't be measured. One is hard, factual, and data driven. Trust is capitalism greatest strength and greatest weakness. It is the greatest strength because it means the product over time will maximize utility for the purchaser. I won't do business with you unless I trust you. You screw me or sell me a faulty product, you won't last long in whatever product you are selling. I will go somewhere else. Compare this to U.S.S.R. communism where I have to buy a tire from the government sanctioned tire maker. A system that relies on trust creates accountability. It is capitalism greatest weakness because trust can leave in a heartbeat for the entire system (and does throughout history) causing other trustworthy institutions to become untrustworthy (i.e. banks) because of the domino affect. You don't have trust and you don't have an economy. Supply and demand is self explanatory but is also uniquely capitalistic. Communism mandates prices or the number of cars produced. In a capitalistic system the market mandates what is produced. The weakness in capitalism is you can way overshoot. Right now we have a rare moment in history where we have massive imbalances in both. Trust and supply and demand. Both of these feed off of each other. To much trust leads to to much supply and vice versa creating huge overshoots in economic activity So every government decision needs to be with the goal of restoring trust and working towards a balance of supply and demand. This is very important because so many government policy decisions in the last six months have been panic responses that ultimately hurt trust and policies trying to manipulate supply and demand versus restoring supply and demand.
So lets work down to the next level. What do you want to avoid. In my mind you work down from this list.
1) Massive inflation - arbitrary what this means but probably 20% plus type of numbers
2) Depression (many would argue this is a worst outcome than hyper inflation. I would argue, that though extreme, depressions are natural. US has experienced several. Britain has as well. Countries emerge from a depression often times stronger than before. Show me one example in history where hyper inflation was ever controlled and the country emerged stronger or the same as it was before through natural economic correction? Maybe you can think of one, I can't. I think the reason is that extreme inflation is the ultimate trust buster. Inflation means trust in currency and hence the government backing that currency is essentially gone. 10% inflation is probably better than depression. Much beyond that and I think you created a worse problem.) 3) 1980 UK recession
4) 1982 US recession
5) 1991 US recession
6) Economic expansion.
Why is this important? Two reasons. You can't start with 6. If you start with 6, economic expansion, it means in my mind you haven't accepted intellectually the problem. This was the problem with the stimulus checks back in June. Regardless of what we do we are going to feel economic pain. What you don't want to do is create something that will be worse than it would otherwise would be. The government has already been good at this. The second reason this is important is it forces you to think through a policy decision to work down from the lesser evils. First avoid massive inflation, then do what you need to do to avoid depression, than a 80 UK recession, etc. working all the way down to policies that will generate economic expansion.
So lets work down to the next level while still inverting. Ideas floating around out there.
1) Foreclosure freeze - In my mind a very very bad idea. It continues to destroy trust and does nothing to restore supply and demand but instead manipulates it. It destroys trust because if bank x wants to borrow from bank y, the bank y will know that like itself, bank x no longer has control of its assets while asset value is deteriorating knowing that at some point bank x will experience that pain so the stated book is overvalued and won't make that loan to bank x. It also creates an incentive (also destroying trust) for rational (though maybe unethical) homeowners to stop paying their monthly payments because I can't be foreclosed on. Rationally, I don't pay for six months, put that money I would have paid in the bank, earn interest, and then pay it six months later when the threat of foreclosure is on me again. It distorts supply and demand manipulating supply of homes downwards and masking performing loans upwards. This cycles back to trust deterioration of investors who are unwilling to make an investment because I can't judge what the true supply / demand and value equation really is.
2) Second stimulus package - In my mind a bad idea (not very very bad idea). If you don't have trust, consumer will not spend a check. This does nothing to restore trust. It is also like providing a cocaine addict with another shot of cocaine. It is not going to hurt but it probably won't help either. There is much more you can do to get bang for your buck than with a 100 billion odd consumer stimulus package writing a check to individual Americans.
3) Bail out automakers - there is way to much excess supply in the auto industry. The auto industry would be much better off today if Chrysler would never have gotten bailed out. You are sending money into a sink hole. I could go on with other policy ideas but lets move onto the second part.
So with all that in mind above what policies can be done to help restore trust, work towards a natural supply and demand base while decreasing the chance of hyperinflation, than depression all the way towards economic expansion? The trust and supply and demand is all interrelated so while one idea may address more specifically one or the other, it ultimately addresses both.
There are two paths. Sweden which addressed the problem, didn't try to hide the problem, and took painful medicine, and the Japanese route who did the exact opposite. Right now we are on the Japan path. The Swedish path means America has the stomach to take pain now for gain later, I am dubious that spoiled Americans can do that.
1) My favorite idea (this is 100% original) that gets to the heart of the problem and I have mentioned this to you before, is for the government to buy and bulldoze houses. This is 100% from inverting. If the problem is housing lets address housing instead of running around addressing everything but housing. I have talked about this with alot of people and nobody has told me why it is a bad idea. To my knowledge it has never been tried and to me it is very capitalistic at its core. Total existing housing inventory is about 4.8 million and sales run rate is about 4.8 million so give our take you have about a 12 month supply. If you bought 1.6 million homes at an average price of 250k that would cost you 400 billion (that moves supply down to 8 months). What do you do? Instead of manipulating supply you are literally moving the supply curve. 8 months is still to high and so home prices will still drift down to more natural levels avoiding inflation but it will help prevent the overshoot which is what will kill us. Your injecting capital directly into main street and most importantly you are dramatically impacting the recovery rate for many of the CDO and CMO which dramatically impact the value of these securities which dramatically impact capital levels. Most of the bank losses are in the derivatives off the mortgages, not the mortgages themselves. This goes to the heart of impacting the mortgages. You take a dramatic overshoot off the table which increases the weighted average expected value of houses, which increases mortgage values, which has a huge impact on derivatives because of the leverage involved. You have some provision that mandates the government will sell this land back to the private sector 10 years from now over a 10 year period. Take the housing database, sort by delinquent mortgages, and by months of supply in various states, and buy the most strategic 1.6 million homes Maybe this is a bad idea. It hasn't been done but it addresses the core problem, it makes the government the buyer of last resort where it is really needed, and adds to the governments millions of acres that they already own that can easily be sold back in the future. Bulldozing the houses limits the problems you will have for squatters or litterally takes the supply out of the U.S. versus just freezing the supply.
2) If you don't this at least buy mortgages with the TARP money. It is the recovery rate that is key to hundreds of billions of dollars in losses. Buying boatloads of mortgages dramatically increases the recovery rate increasing the value of derivatives multiple times than if you would have just bought the derivative.
3) Force the banks to stop hiding losses. Ignoring the problem doesn't fix the problem. It damages trust and prolongs the problem. I know you and me differ on this but the accounting is so loose and so opaque that the banks can hide billions upon billions of losses. Investors know this and banks knows this. What is unknown is which bank is the worst off and to what extent. So it destroys trust because I don't trust any bank. I don't want to own any bank. I don't like any bank. Banks have the same feeling toward each other. This TARP plan encourages losses to stay hidden just like Japan. Lower the required regulatory capital ratios for a set period of time while forcing all banks to cleanse their balance sheets. Those banks that will fail because of this, let them fail. Wipe out the equity holders. Nationalize these banks. The pain will be large for a short period of time. What will also be large is the amount of trust that will flood back into the banking system.
4) Create supply where there is to much demand. Infrastructure stimulus plan. This is the one area in the U.S. we are under supplied. Probably the only area. Our infrastructure is old and in certain places not enough. Create large amounts of jobs while overhauling our infrastructure. The return on this investment will be huge. It will help unemployment and will directly put dollars in Main Street's hands.
5) I will throw a bone to Obama (don't let my dad know). Move the tax rate for the top 5% of Americans up. The top 5% of Americans greatly benefited from the system, it is our duty to help save the system. I would demand a 5 year limit on this but any increase in revenue inflow will help on the potential inflation front. It helps maintain trust in the government itself.
You can't save the world and the world is in trouble. This means that no matter what America does, the pain is going to bad moving forward. The best we can hope for is that you don't create a bigger problem and help minimize the pain through smart economic policy. If we are lucky we will get out of this with a price tag of 4% of GDP. It could be much bigger. As I said, in my mind the financial crises is over. I would say the banking system still needs to be cleansed instead of being propped up and if the government is going to backstop the entire system force a cleansing. The threat of financial collapse, unless the government collapses, has been taken off the table. Now you have an economic crises of massive proportions. Focusing on trust and supply and demand is the only thing that will minimize this pain.