Who gets a government bailout?

Commentary about business and finance.
Sept. 12 2008 3:46 PM

Lemons, But No Lehman Aid

Who gets a government bailout?

Read more about Wall Street's ongoing crisis.

Lehman Brothers office in New York. Click image to expand.
Lehman Brothers investment bank

Wall Street is consumed with the subject of bailouts. As analysts chewed over the implications of the government's decision to assume the debt of ailing mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, traders (and their real-estate brokers) wondered whether erstwhile titans Lehman Brothers and Washington Mutual would be next in line for government assistance. Meanwhile, lobbyists for the big three automakers were refining their pitches for $25 billion in loan guarantees. It is sure to be another long weekend for Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.

Bailouts—the government's stepping in and providing financial assistance or credit guarantees to private-sector companies—are a highly confusing subject. As policymakers hasten to save some companies from the ravages of creative destruction, they leave others to fail. Some 5,644 businesses went bankrupt in July, up 80 percent from July 2007. So are there some objective criteria we can use to determine whether the government will toss a lifeline to a particular company?

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Recent history offers some hints. A sole proprietor or a homeowner? Forget about it. A small, privately held business that runs into a spot of trouble? No soup for you. A debt-ridden bedding retailer like Linens 'n Things or a purveyor of potato skins like Bennigan's? No 'n No.

Clearly, financial firms get extra consideration. But being involved in the money trade is no guarantee. As of last Friday, 11 (mostly small) banks have been allowed to fail this year.

It's a truism that the bigger you are, and the more you owe, the more forbearance you're likely to get. In 1984, when Continential Illinois, whose reckless lending practices had catapulted it into the ranks of the nation's 10 largest banks, ran into trouble, the government bought some of its loans and provided extraordinary compensation to depositors. "We have a new kind of bank," complained Fernand St. Germain, a congressman from Rhode Island, "It is called too big to fail." (St. Germain, who shepherded the bill that deregulated the savings-and-loan industry, would be blamed in part for the record-setting bailout of S&Ls later that decade).

But these days, size alone doesn't matter. Earlier this decade, Enron, WorldCom, and Global Crossing, three gargantuan companies, went bust while the government looked the other way. Of course, when the aforementioned companies filed for Chapter 11, nobody lost electricity or was unable to make a phone call. "But if the government envisions that a failure will have a serious adverse consequence on the economy, it's going to step in," said Benton Gup, a professor of banking at the University of Alabama and editor of the collection Too Big To Fail: Policies and Practices in Government Bailouts.

For that reason, certain types of financial institutions are much more likely to be helped than others. A bank that lends to people with dodgy credit in California doesn't pose much of a threat to the Davos crowd. But financial intermediaries like Bear Stearns and the FM twins function like the heart of the global financial system. If they go into cardiac arrest, the whole body is in danger. Since Bear Stearns was a counterparty to (and guarantor of) trades and financial arrangements with the world's major financial players, its failure would have triggered a cascade of losses. In the same vein, huge quantities of the $5.4 trillion in debt issued and insured by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac sit on the balance sheets of central banks and financial institutions around the globe. For the U.S. government simply to let this debt—which it had been implicitly backing for decades—go bad would have meant inflicting severe damage on America's most significant diplomatic and trading partners. Fannie Mae wasn't too big to fail, one Wall Street wag told me this week. It was too Chinese to fail.

To be eligible for a bailout, firms must also demonstrate a particular genius for screwing up. Before it went bust, Bear Stearns had a monstrous $33 of debt for every dollar of capital, and hedge funds it owned destroyed hundreds of millions of dollars of clients' cash. It got a bailout. Lehman Brothers, which has taken painful measures to reduce its risk, is perversely less likely to get direct government help. "The worst Lehman can do is destroy the firm," said Barry Ritholtz, CEO of Wall Street research firm FusionIQ and author of the forthcoming Bailout Nation. "Bear Stearns, on the other hand, set up the firm so that if they screwed up, they could threaten the entire financial system." That may explain why Treasury Secretary Paulson has thus far resisted providing federal succor to Lehman.

Finally, companies seeking the tender mercies of the taxpayer must have good timing. Nearly all the great corporate bailouts of modern times have come in election years. Congress enacted loan guarantees for Chrysler in January 1980, ensuring that a company that employed about 130,000 people, many of them in the swing state of Michigan, would not go bust on the eve of primary season.

So, if your company is in trouble, what should you do? Double down. Establish links to other firms. Export your products with abandon. And hustle. There are only seven more weeks until the election.

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