Bailout economics

November 17, 2010
Warren Buffett contributes a thankyou-for-the-bailout op-ed to the NYT to run alongside the paper's reasonably comprehensive accounting of which bailout monies have been paid back, which might be, and which won't be.

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It’s all about the bailouts today, as Warren Buffett contributes a thank-you-for-the-bailout op-ed to the NYT to run alongside the paper’s reasonably comprehensive accounting of which bailout monies have been paid back, which might be, and which won’t be. (Think banks, AIG, and Frannie respectively.)

The next big tranche of bailout repayment funds, of course, is going to arrive tomorrow, with the upsized GM IPO. The size of the stake that Treasury’s selling has been growing impressively, and at this point it looks as though taxpayers are going to end up owning just 33% of GM, down from 61% right now.

The more shares that the government sells in the low $30s, of course, the harder it’s going to be for Treasury to realize an average price of $44 per share for its stake by the time its last share of stock has been sold. That’s the point at which the government breaks even on the deal. But I’m glad that Treasury isn’t letting such considerations stop it—holding on to stock just because it’s trading below some arbitrary 0% return figure is simply speculating in the stock market, and it’s not Treasury’s job to be a stock-market speculator.

Meanwhile, the Ireland bailout is already well under way, the protestations of Ireland’s PM that Ireland isn’t asking for one notwithstanding: we’re still in the middle of the bailout era, and we’re not even close to a point where bailouts are a thing of the past. Portugal is next, Greece is inevitable at some point, and various U.S. states might well end up getting bailed out too, sooner or later.

We haven’t even put an end to bailouts of the private sector, since any bailout, even of a sovereign, is ultimately a bailout of its private-sector creditors.

All of which means that sovereign debt is going to continue to go up rather than down: at heart, bailouts are a way of moving indebtedness from the bailed-out entity to the government doing the bailing out. With yet another debt reduction task force reporting today, it might be time to start asking how and whether crisis-related bailouts can ever be accounted for in long-term sovereign debt planning.


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