Thursday, April 3, 2008

Lying to Congress should be a crime

I'm not sure why it's ok to lie to Congress as long as you couch your statements in financial or technical jargon and sound important, but apparently that's the status quo. Evidence the recent SEC statement about Bear Sterns, where they say there wasn't a capitalization problem, there was a liquidity problem.

Now liquidity problems certainly can exist. For example, if trading for a stock is halted on an exchange, and you hold shares, you have a liquidity problem. Or if you hold something which is in a time-lock safe, and you can't access it to sell it.

Now, say your borrowing more and more money to pay off previous borrowing, and eventually you run out of people willing to lend you money because they don't think they will get paid back, or the collateral you're pledging is considered worthless. That's not a liquidity problem; that's a capitalization problem. Same as if you think you should be able to sell something for $100, and the market will only pay $50 for it: that's pretty much the definition of a reduction in value of you capital.

Now the question is: what was the case for Bear Sterns? Well, let's look at the facts. They hold securities, which could be bought/sold at any time on the market (people were buying them, they still are buying them). They also borrowed money, by pledging their assets at whatever valuation people assigned to them, and getting rates based on the projected viability of their company (based on capitalization). They could certainly sell their assets, and/or get credit if they were adequately capitalized. So in fact, as long as they were adequately capitalized, they did not have a liquidity problem; no external force was preventing them from selling assets or borrowing.

So what actually happened? Well, duh, they wanted to borrow $100 against something the market thought was only worth $50. They didn't want to sell, because then they would have a capitalization problem (due to marking assets to the real market). They couldn't borrow, because the market thought (correctly, as a side note) that their capitalization was net negative. So they had a liquidity problem, not instead of, but because they had a capitalization problem!

Didn't there used to be a law against lying to Congress and the American people? Or does that just apply to companies who the SEC prosecutes?

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