It's time to reboot capitalism. So where do we begin?
Here's a suggestion for what should be at the top of agenda of every decision-maker across the economy, from Davos, to Obama, to Sand Hill Road, to the revolutionaries in tiny garages hatching tomorrow's Googles: reconceiving growth.
20th century capitalism is eating itself. For the first time since World War II, global growth is forecast to turn negative -- and that's an optimistic forecast, relative to the possibility of a global lost decade. Today's leaders are plugging dikes, bailing out industries and banks as they fail. Yet, what negative global growth suggests is that the problem is of a different order: that we have reached the boundaries of a kind of growth.
Reigniting growth requires rethinking growth. The question Davos -- and most leaders -- are asking is: where will tomorrow's growth come from? Will it result from oil, cleantech, bailouts, China, or Obama? The answer is: none of the above. Tomorrow's growth won't come from a person, place, or technology - but from understanding why yesterday's growth has failed. The same growth models applied to new people, places, and technologies will simply result in the same crises, over and over again. We have to reboot growth: the problem is not what is growing versus what is not, but how we grow...
I have a little secret... I don't want banks at all... Since we have already bought and paid for our nation's banking institutions, we are within our rights to, um, transition them to a different business model. Let's do that.
But credit is the lifeblood of a capitalist economy, right? I keep hearing that line. It's a dumb line.
Credit, also known as debt, is one of several arrangements by which a party with the power to command resources but lacking aptitude or interest in managing a productive enterprise delegates wealth to another party who is capable of creating value but unable to command sufficient resources. You would be forgiven for not noticing, given how habitually we misuse credit, but supplying credit is really just a subspecies of the practice that used to be called "investing" ... credit is to investing what heroin is to painkillers: Unusually appealing, in a certain way. Hard to kick once you're on it. Almost certain to, um, cause problems, eventually. Our overall goal ought not be to kickstart the credit economy, but to kick the habit and move towards financing arrangements that are more equity-like than debt-like. That's going to be hard to do, because historically, we've subsidized the hell out of debt financing...
It's not my intention to suggest that consumer credit is always bad... But if we let consumer credit contract, and if investment demand is derived from consumption demand, doesn't that spell macroeconomic disaster? There is an alternative. It is called "transfers"...
The bad bank could serve as a useful interim measure, except that it will make it more difficult to obtain the necessary funding for a proper recapitalization in the future. It will also encounter all kinds of difficulties in valuing toxic securities, and it will serve as a covert subsidy to the banks by bidding up the price of their toxic assets. This will generate tremendous political resistance to any further expenditure to bail out the banks.
For these reasons it would be a mistake to take the "bad bank" route, especially when there is a way to adequately recapitalize the banks with currently available resources. The trick is not to remove the toxic assets from the banks' balance sheets but instead put them into a "side pocket," as hedge funds are doing with their illiquid assets. The appropriate amount of capital -- equity and unsecured debentures -- would be sequestered in the side pocket.
This would cleanse bank balance sheets and transform them into good banks but leave them undercapitalized. The same $1 trillion that is now destined to fund the bad bank could then be used to infuse capital into the good banks.
Although the amount needed to recapitalize the banks would be more than $1 trillion, it would be possible to mobilize a significant portion of the required total amount from the private sector. In the current environment, a good bank would enjoy exceptionally good margins. Margins would narrow as a result of competition, but by then the banking system would be revitalized and nationalization avoided.
The scheme I am proposing would minimize valuation problems and avoid providing a hidden subsidy to the banks. Exactly for that reason it is likely to encounter strong resistance from vested interests.
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