The Fed’s interest rate cut hurts the prudent

For those who think the Fed’s recent interest rate cut is an unmitigated good, read Allan Sloan’s recent Fortune article titled, “Heads I Win, Tails I Get Bailed Out; The reckless are getting relief from Bernanke. How does that work?”

I’ve blogged in the past about the moral hazard implicit in the Fed cutting rates. I believe the Fed’s large rate cut encourages imprudent risk taking.

But, I didn’t highlight how the rate cut hurts the prudent, and Allan Sloan does a great job of that. As Sloan puts it, the “recent interest rate cut has done a lot of harm to those of us who’ve managed our finances prudently.”

The Fed cut rates to calm market turbulence, and this was directed to helping the “players in the biggest trouble,” those “who’d taken the biggest fliers in junk mortgages, ultra-risky leveraged buyouts, and other financial esoterica that proved to be malignant.”

But, this rate cut not only helped the imprudent, it hurt the prudent. It hurt “those of us who keep score in dollars and didn’t need to be bailed out” because we are now “less wealthy than we were in terms of anything other than our home currency.”

Why? Because the rate cut “contributed heavily to the dollar’s recent sharp drop in the currency markets…and to the price spike in hard assets like gold, silver, copper, and oil.” In other words, prudent people’s wealth, in terms of dollars, is worth less relative to the things we want to buy with dollars.

Added to this, the rate cut caused long term and fixed mortgage rates up. Once again, this benefits the imprudent who gambled on floating rate loans and punishes the prudent who may be seeking fixed rate loans at what are now higher rates.

Those investors who stayed away from toxic waste and invested prudently are also being punished because the Fed’s bailout is helping toxic waste investors to the relative detriment of those who avoided subprime mortgage risks of all sorts (whether bonds, CDO’s, stocks, swaps, etc.).

Finally, the prudent get to bail out the imprudent in that our tax dollars will be used to bail out subprime borrowers, subprime lenders (like Countrywide), subprime investors, and the investment banks and rating agencies who should have known that subprime investments were junk.

As Sloan puts it, the Fed’s bailout allows the imprudent to play “heads I win, tails I get bailed out” whereas prudent investors get stuck with depreciated wealth, higher fixed rate loans, worse relative investment performance, and a higher tax burden.

If you’ve been imprudent over the last several years, you probably think the Fed’s rate cut is wonderful. But, for those of us who were prudent enough to avoid bad risks, the Fed’s rate cut is bad news.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

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Moral Hazard

Today, the Federal Reserve and President of the United States offered a life raft to the mortgage market.

It sounds like this will come in the form of additional liquidity for lenders from the Federal Reserve, and loan guarantees and loan restructuring for borrowers through various government departments.

Although this may seem like much needed help for “victims” of the market, to me it looks like a dangerous incentive to take more risk–also known as moral hazard.

You see, borrowers who shouldn’t have gotten money were lent money. Many were speculators hoping home prices would keep going up. Others were ignorant of the loans they signed because they didn’t bother to read the paperwork.

Should borrowers be bailed out who shouldn’t have borrowed? Suppose I go out and buy a large screen TV with my credit card. Suppose I can’t make the payments because I didn’t realize the interest rate I would pay. Should taxpayers bail me out because I’m ignorant of the contract I signed? If they do, what would I learn? Not to take the risk?

Even worse, lenders knew about their borrower’s credit histories and ability to pay. Lenders also knew they would pass such loans off to Wall Street investment banks who would sell such bad loans to ignorant investors.

Should the mortgage originators, Wall Street banks and lazy investors be bailed out for making bad loans? Suppose I lend someone money at a 20% rate because they can’t get a loan elsewhere. Suppose they can’t make payments at some point. Should the taxpayer bail me out for making a bad loan? What would I learn? Not to make loans to people who can’t pay?

The Fed and President are offering to bail out borrowers and lenders with other people’s money. Those other people are U.S. taxpayers. You will pay in the form of inflation due to the Fed printing money and higher tax rates or higher government debt due to the executive branch bailing out “victims” of bad lending.

The real problem with this scheme, as any study of history will tell you, is moral hazard. If someone learns they can take risk at another’s expense, then they’re incentivized to take that risk over and over again.

If you let a teenager borrow your car and they get in an accident, what do they learn if you prevent them from living with the consequences? Why would that be any different with adult borrowers and lenders in the U.S. economy?

Just look at the people rebuilding their huge houses in Alabama that were wiped out by hurricane Katrina. They know they don’t have to pay for insurance because the government will bail them out, so they are quite happy to rebuild because they know they won’t bear the expense of the risk they’re taking.

So, when you see spiking inflation over the next several years and higher tax rates or increased federal debt to pay for all the bailouts the government is offering, keep in mind that you’re getting to bail out speculators in real estate, people with bad credit histories, banks who pass their loans off to Wall Street, Wall Street investment banks that don’t need the help, and investors who don’t bother researching what exactly they are buying.

And, when such teenagers take this risk over and over again, and you get to bail them out each time, remember that there is a name for this phenomenon–moral hazard.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.