Big Government to the Rescue!

Finally, this past weekend, Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen confirmed what foreign government officials, private sector economists, and global investors knew for weeks: namely, that the Irish government would accept a fiscal bail-out from the European Union in order to help it manage its way out of crisis. Ireland thus follows Greece as the latest nation to require such a bail-out; rumors abound that Portugal is the next country in line for consideration.

At a very early stage of the global financial collapse in February 2009, the Irish government proudly proclaimed that it didn’t need significant grants of monetary support from the European Union to help it bring its troubled fiscal situation under control. Instead, it opted to bail out its domestic banks as an independent nation, and it paid for its decision through a combination of massive tax increases and budgetary program reductions. In fact, the Irish were so widely admired by some for their responsible activities that British voters later voted for a new government that promised to follow the Irish model towards economic prosperity.

Regrettably, though, the Irish model has led the Emerald Isle down a path to continual economic decline, as well as outright population loss as working age professionals and laborers emigrate to other nations in search of employment opportunities. These challenges led to escalating bond market pressures on the Irish government, pressures that may finally be relieved, now that the European Union has come to its rescue.

Although naturally oriented towards free markets and against government intervention in the macro-economy, global investors quietly accepted the impending news of this additional massive government bail-out. Interestingly, private investors have begun to accept — and even applaud — similar governmental rescue efforts in the United States as well.

Intervention, American Style

This past week, for instance, the financial markets enthusiastically bought into General Motors’ (GM’s) gigantic Initial Public Offering (IPO) on the New York Stock Exchange. Although GM’s prior shareholders saw their investments decline to zero value during the auto maker’s bankruptcy filing last year, most investment analysts have supported President Obama’s decision to invest directly in the firm’s reorganization and rebirth. Last week’s IPO, which priced the stock at the high end of the range of values predicted by industry pundits shortly before the event, was deemed a rousing success by Wall Street.

Investor reaction was somewhat more mixed in response to U.S. Federal Reserve Bank Chair Ben Bernanke’s vow to stimulate the economy by directly purchasing Treasury securities from the American capital markets, thereby injecting additional liquidity into the hands of the general public. Although some pundits worried that an economy drowning in cash would eventually experience hyper-inflation and a devastating decline in domestic currency values, most accepted Bernanke’s reassurances that there were no signs of an impending spike in inflation. Most also agreed with Bernanke that recent moves by China and other Asian nations to weaken their own currencies were potentially more destabilizing to the global financial system than his own actions.

As if to emphasize the oversight power of America’s national government, representatives of the Federal Reserve Bank also announced plans last week to stress test the nineteen largest financial institutions in the United States. The only other time the Federal Reserve decided to perform such tests was during the heart of the global financial crisis, when investors legitimately feared the imminent collapse of the world banking system. Last week, though, the Fed’s announced intention to monitor the fiscal health of America’s largest banking institutions was perceived by many as a reassuring signal that “big government” oversight functions would remain in place indefinitely to prevent future investment bubbles and economic meltdowns.

The Pendulum Swings

Much was made of the symbolism of the Obama election in 2008. The American people, many thought, had voted to reverse a thirty year trend of free market, anti-government philosophy, and had opted to swing the policy pendulum back towards active government oversight of (and intervention in) the nation’s economic affairs.  Earlier this month, though, the upstart Tea Party voters fueled election victories for the Republican Party; many interpreted these contrary results as a signal that the return of “big government” would halt dead in its tracks.

Despite the Republican Party’s vow to repeal President Obama’s national health care plan, though, individual Republican lawmakers have acknowledged that they lack the votes to actually achieve that goal.  And despite continuing complaints about the economic policies of the current administration, no rival politician has presented a comprehensive plan to overturn (or even modify) the current policies and strategies of President Obama’s economic team.

It thus appears, then, that “big government” politicians and bureaucrats will continue to play major roles in managing the national economies of the United States, the European Union, and other countries around the world for the foreseeable future. Interestingly, perhaps contrary to conventional expectations, the private investment markets appear to be satisfied with that prospect.

Attack Of The Robo-Signers!

Are you a prospective home buyer who can’t obtain a mortgage because of chaos in the banking industry? Or a prospective seller who can’t find a buyer? Then you’re a victim of the mortgage credit crisis, which has frozen the housing market into a state of permanent recession during the past two years.

In fact, during the past month, this crisis has actually worsened in increasingly bizarre ways. Stories about the crisis are now dominated by robo-signers who evict thousands of victims from their homes each month, and trench warfare tactics that pit banks against governmental authorities.

Tea party protestors have heatedly opposed the government bail-out of the financial services industry, arguing that America’s court system could have handled the case load if all of the nation’s major banks, insurance companies, and other financial institutions had simultaneously filed for bankruptcy in late 2008. Unfortunately, we are now learning about our system’s capacity to handle the simultaneous foreclosures of millions of American homes.

What are we learning? Suffice it to say that the results are not generating a sense of confidence in our system.

No One To Call

A few weeks ago, news of robo-signers began to rattle the mortgage industry. Who are robo-signers? They’re the employees who work for banks, enshrined with the responsibility of reviewing and approving the (mostly) computerized files associated with home foreclosure cases. Even though banks rely on computers to identify home owners who have defaulted on their mortgage payments, they must still rely on human beings to look for processing errors, lest they mistakenly seize the homes of innocent and financially responsible people.

But why are these employees called robo-signers? They’re not humanoid computers like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator or Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop. Rather, they are real people who have been able to move at incredible robotic speed, reviewing and approving thousands of foreclosure cases each month.

Oddly enough, many of these bank employees are low-paid clerks who possess no industry knowledge or experience whatsoever. So how can they — or any one — possibly review and approve thousands of cases each month? Apparently, they have been blindly approving cases without reading them, and thus home owners who have been falsely classified as being delinquent cannot speak to knowledgeable bank reviewers about such processing errors. That’s because the reviewers themselves are not at all familiar with the cases that they have personally approved, and they’re far too busy robo-signing thousands of files to dedicate time to taking phone calls.

A Downward Spiral

Once news of the robo-signers spread across the markets, the housing industry fell into a downward spiral of cascading recriminations. Confronted with the need to defend themselves against charges of inappropriate home seizures, Bank of America (BoA) and other mortgage holders temporarily halted all foreclosure actions nationwide. That decision threw all home sales of foreclosed properties into states of extreme uncertainty.

BoA and others then resumed foreclosure actions a week ago, declaring that they had reviewed their policies and procedures and found them to be valid. But critics protested that BoA was simply denying its problems to defend itself against a multi-state investigation by state attorneys general to protect residents against illegal home seizures. Parties that bought mortgages from BoA before the global financial crisis then demanded that BoA simply buy back all of their bad loans, a demand that the bank angrily vowed to fight in court.

Just within the past few days, the chaos spread even more dramatically. In Britain, three prestigious hotels accused Irish bankers of wrongfully signaling that they were unprofitable and late on loan payments by transferring their debt into a high risk pool; they scrambled to reassure investors that they were actually profitable and current on their debt. And here in America, the Federal Housing Finance Agency estimated that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, guarantors of over half of the outstanding home mortgages in the United States, will ultimately require over $150 billion in government bail-out funds to remain solvent.

The Rule of Law and Due Process

Under assault, of course, is the fundamental premise that businesses and citizens can rely on the principles of the rule of law and due process to govern property disputes. After all, if home owners cannot rely on banks to review their own records before seizing their properties, they’ll never feel comfortable applying for mortgages and buying homes in the future. And if hotels cannot rely on lenders to classify their payment histories in an accurate manner, they’ll never borrow money to invest in growth opportunities again.

The American court system is now staggering under a wave of lawsuits that will require years of litigation. Would this same court system have been able to handle the simultaneous bankruptcies of all of these troubled financial institutions back in 2008? Perhaps so … but even Tea Party protestors have good reason to be skeptical about its capabilities.