Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Too fat to fail

I remember a quirky line from Richard Branson’s autobiography. It went something like this – if you borrow $40,000 from the bank and can’t repay, it’s your problem, but if you borrow $40million and can’t repay, it’s the bank’s problem. He was talking about borrowing to buy planes for Virgin airlines, but a similar principle applies in so many places – the larger your business, the more people who have an interest in keeping it going. This includes the lenders but also the employees, other firms that do business with you, and the customers.

The reason I raise this point is because of the US Federal government bailout of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae - both private firms dealing in the secondary market for mortgages. While Fannie Mae is a former government agency, and was privatised in 1968, Freddie Mac is a wholly private company, chartered by the US congress in 1970 to provide competition in the secondary mortgage market. All assets of these companies are solely owned by the shareholders, who also reap the profits from their investment.

So we see an interesting dilemma. For an economist, competition between producers provides great benefits to society by responding to demands and pushing down prices. However, inherent in this competitive environment is that businesses will occasionally fail. Problems arise when firms become very large. You can imagine that if the Queensland bank Suncorp went broke – that’s 9000 people out of a job, not to mention the problems with people who are insured by them, and flow on effects to other businesses.

I think economists often forget that their model of perfect markets is far removed from reality. In this model there are a large number of buyers and sellers, and no barriers to entry. Any market with few players and high capital costs is not perfectly competitive. If a firm fails in these oligopolistic markets there can be quite a degree of social disruption. Governments see these social costs as motivation for bailing out large firms. The US, an icon of capitalism, has probably the worst track record for corporate bailouts, with the airline industry post 9-11 another example.

What is most interesting about the bailout of the two secondary mortgage market players is that the intention is to prop up the whole economy. But you don’t see the government propping up the family fish and chip shop, or the local grocer, even though that is their intention in the end. One must wonder what criteria is used to determine whether a corporate bailout will or will not occur.

It is a surprising that any government would go ahead and privatise an industry if they are going to guarantee the newly created private firm against bankruptcy anyway. One criteria for privatisation much surely be that the firm be allowed to go bust. In any case, the issue over excessive scale of corporate enterprise, to the point where failure of the firm creates massive social disruption, should be an issue for governments worldwide.

Any thoughts on this type of government involvement in private enterprise?

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