By Rob Cox
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
The nation awoke Tuesday to find much of the federal government closed for business. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives had refused to fund essential government functions until the rest of Congress and President Barack Obama agreed to reverse a healthcare law passed three years ago and deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court. By doing so, they put reversing healthcare reform ahead of protecting the nation.
Here are comments from a U.S. Treasury official on Secretary Jack Lew’s meeting with incoming Acting IRS Commissioner Daniel Werfel this morning, following a scandal of political targeting that cost the previous acting commissioner his job. Treasury officials knew about the problem as early as last June, according to this report in the Wall Street Journal:
Ronald Reagan famously said that the “nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'” But according to a report from SNL, the government may actually help banks when it forces them to add directors to their boards. Every bank CEO's worst nightmare is having the government name directors to his or her board. Usually, banks pack their boards with clients or prominent people that offer prestige and potential business leads, but little substantive oversight. At the smaller banks that SNL is focusing on, that often amounts to people like the owner of the local car dealership, or the owner of the local golf equipment seller. (For a stereotypical example of a community bank’s directors, consider the board of Smithtown Bancorp, which was sagging under the weight of failed loans before being taken over by People’s United Bank in 2010.)
The Treasury, on the other hand, tends to appoint people with actual banking experience, who can do what board members are supposed to do: keep an eye on management for the benefit of shareholders. The government only does so for banks that have lost their way: the Treasury has the right to name directors to boards of banks that received bailout money under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and that missed six quarters of dividend payments. Typically, these appointees are bankers with more than 20 years of experience.
By SNL’s reckoning, the banks with Treasury-appointed directors have racked up median stock gains of 50.38 percent since taking on the new board members, compared with a median gain of 28.22 percent in an index of bank stocks.
Of course there may be other reasons for this outperformance - for example, it may be that small bank stocks in general have outperformed larger bank stocks over the relevant time frame, or that relatively weak banks have been in greater demand from value investors betting on an improving economy. But it may also be that the government has found a fix for the principal-agent problem at banks that have stumbled into trouble.
It's had a good run, and will remain in use for the purposes of alerting reporters that "Treasury is in the (press) room.” But when it comes to the Federal Reserve's monetary policy decisions, which are also released out of Treasury, the central bank is ditching the old ringer.
Richard Fisher, the Dallas Fed’s colorfully hawkish president, enjoys touting the remittances that the central bank makes yearly to Treasury, earned, circularly enough, mostly on the returns of the Treasury bonds the Fed holds. Here’s Fisher in September 2010:
The election left us with a status quo political lineup, one that failed to make any meaningful fiscal progress over the past two years. So is it realistic to expect that we can avoid the fiscal cliff and achieve some sort of "grand bargain"? Yes, it is possible, and here is how to do it:
The U.S. Treasury Department announced on Wednesday it would begin issuing floating rate notes (FRNs), even if such a new program is at least a year away from implementation. The rationale behind these short-term securities is to give investors protection against the possibility of a sudden spike in interest rates. The Federal Reserve has held overnight rates near zero since late 2008, helping to anchor borrowing costs of all maturities.