Citigroup (C) was once the biggest U.S. bank. General Motors (GM) was once the biggest automaker in the world. Now, both are on the brink. Yet Citigroup is likely to be rescued within days. General Motors may not be rescued at all.
Why the difference? Viewed from Wall Street, Citi is too big and important to be allowed to fail while GM is simply a big, clunky old manufacturing company that can go into chapter 11 and reorganize itself. The newly conventional wisdom on the Street is that the failure of the Treasury and the Fed to save Lehman Brothers was a grave mistake because Lehman’s demise caused creditors and investors to panic, which turned the sub-prime loan mess into a financial catastrophe — a mistake that must not occur again. But GM? GM is only jobs and communities. Citi is money.
The Street’s view of the world is fundamentally flawed. Banks are important to the economy because they’re financial intermediaries. They connect savers with investors and borrowers. This is a vital function, but there’s nothing magical about it. At any given time the world contains a vast pool of money that can be put to all sorts of uses. Financial intermediaries simply link the pool to the uses.
To be sure, savers need to believe that intermediaries are trustworthy; otherwise, savers will prefer the underside of their mattresses. That’s why governments regulate intermediaries, insure deposits, and do whatever else needs to be done to make savers feel safe. What governments and societies fear most are “runs” on banks — panicked efforts by depositors to pull their money out all at once, before banks can possibly collect the money from all those who have used it to borrow or invest. That’s what happened in the 1930s.
But the current panic on Wall Street is not a “run” in this sense. It has almost nothing to do with banks’ roles as financial intermediaries. It’s about money that’s been lent to or invested in the banks themselves, in order to profit off of the banks’ profits. Lehman’s demise cost many investors and creditors lots of money, to be sure, but they were investors and creditors in Lehman, not in the real economy.
Before the asset bubbles burst, financial institutions were generating whopping profits, so naturally they attracted many investors and creditors. After the burst, the profits disappeared. These days, you’d be hard pressed to find many people who want to invest in or lend to financial institutions. Citigroup had a market value of $274 billion at the end of 2006. Now its value is about $21 billion. That’s awful news for Citi, its executives and traders, and its investors and creditors. But it’s not necessarily awful news for the economy as a whole. Even if Citigroup were to go belly up, the real economy would not be seriously harmed. The mutual funds, pension funds, and deposits overseen by Citi would be safe; fund managers would find their way to other banks.
In other words, Citigroup is not much different from General Motors. It’s a company that once made lots of money but, through a series of management blunders, is now losing money hand over fist. Just like the shareholders and creditors of GM, Citi’s shareholders and creditors are taking a beating.
So why save Citi and not GM? It’s not clear. In fact, there may be more reason to do the reverse. GM has a far greater impact on jobs and communities. Add parts suppliers and their employees, and the number of middle-class and blue-collar jobs dependent on GM is many multiples that of Citi. And the potential social costs of GM’s demise, or even major shrinkage, is much larger than Citi’s — including everything from unemployment insurance to lost tax revenues to families suddenly without health insurance to entire communities whose infrastructure and housing may become nearly worthless. I’m not arguing that GM should be bailed out; as I’ve noted elsewhere, GM’s creditors, shareholders, executives, and workers should have to make substantial sacrifices before taxpayers should be expected to sacrifice as well.
Nonetheless, Citi is about to be bailed out while GM is allowed to languish. That’s because Wall Street’s self-serving view of the unique role of financial institutions is mirrored in the two agencies that run the American economy — the Treasury and the Fed. Their job, as they see it, is to keep the financial economy “sound,” by which they mean keeping Wall Street’s own investors and creditors happy.
Because the public doesn’t understand the intricacies of finance, it’s easily persuaded that this is the same thing as keeping credit flowing to Main Street. That’s why the public and its representatives have committed $700 billion of taxpayer money to Wall Street and another $500 to $600 billion of subsidized loans to the Street from the Fed — bailing out the investors and creditors of every major bank, including , momentarily, Citi — only to discover, at the end of this frantic and unbelievably expensive exercise, that American jobs and communities are more endangered than they were at the start.