Larry Summers dissembles as follows:
"If we simply throw up our hands, refuse to deal with any of this, we'll have the kind of financial catastrophe that we saw after what happened at Lehman Brothers," Summers said. "[Treasury] Secretary Geithner has negotiated very forcefully with AIG. He has done everything that is legally permissible for the government to do to limit the payment of bonuses. But where there are contracts, binding contracts that were entered into long before the government put any money in to AIG - we're not a country where contracts just get abrogated willy-nilly."The government can do a lot of things - put AIG in receivership, sell off its profitable pieces, and liquidate the rest. They could avoid fear-mongering about what happens if it fails, and either create a "Chapter 10" bankruptcy for companies that are "too big to fail" or simply say, "If you don't renegotiate those bonuses, bankruptcy court awaits."
Again, quite obviously, the "sanctity of contracts" isn't an issue in relation to the auto industry bailout. Abrogation and renegotiation of contracts has been made a condition of any bailout. This is different only because Summers and Geithner are continuing the Bush Administration's incompetent, poorly conceived bail-out that somehow deems it wrong for the people who ran our economy into the ground to suffer a financial consequence. Not when they can be fully paid, courtesy of the taxpayer.
Flashback to November:
Someone in the Obama administration, with both business savvy and a suitably tough-minded approach, could bring together the parties, including the dealers, the union and the company. He (or she) could force the union and the company to renegotiate their contracts. With his input, Congress could perhaps pass a law that dealt with the state laws governing dealerships. (Or the government could pay off the dealers itself, instead of having G.M. do it.) He could sign off on plant closings. He could force the companies to come up with real plans that would return them to profitability. And in return, the government would make federal loans that would give them the breathing room they need.When did I miss the retort from Larry Summers that we don't renegotiate contracts in this country, no matter how unprofitable a business, and no matter how much taxpayer money is on the line? It would be a nice thing to clear up, now that he's actually been given that job.
Come to think of it, this would be a perfect first job for Lawrence Summers, who is expected to become an economic adviser to the president-elect. If he can’t knock these heads together, nobody can.
When he makes the same type of "A contract is a contract", "the government cannot just abrogate contracts" statement about the auto industry, we'll know he's not a liar. Otherwise....
Note to Obama: I know these guys haven't been on the job very long, and neither have you, but this combination of spinelessness and rudderlessnes on the financial crisis has to stop. If you believe that this type of continuous bailout of AIG, despite its complete lack of willingness to take responsibility for its past actions or financial condition, or additional TARP-type bailouts of banks are necessary, you had best be thinking of alternatives - this may have just destroyed the chances that you'll get the funding.
Update: Josh Marshall's observation,
I don't believe the bonuses themselves are the heart of the matter, nor the fact that they're going to the very executives who caused AIG's implosion or even the galling reality that, since all money is fungible, they're being paid with taxpayer dollars. What's really driving this forward - and what makes it such a dangerous moment for the White House - is the jarring image of the administration's impotence....Update 2: Glenn Greenwald addresses Summers on the "sanctity" of contracts:
Few exchanges have so captured the disconnect that makes this situation so politically explosive. We're collectively taking our country's future in our hands, spending vast sums of money to keep these companies from suffering the consequences of their own folly and (in many cases) criminality. And in return we're receiving cavalier dictates about pay-outs and bonuses from executives who by any reasonable measure work for us - dictates we promptly accede to. There's a beggars can't be choosers problem there. And the disconnect is so mighty that it fuels the impression that the whole enterprise is not what it seems, not what we've been told, that in addition to picking up the tab we're being played for fools.
Legal strategies aside, just as a business matter, one of the first things which every compnay in severe distress does is go to its creditors, explain that it cannot make the required payments, and force re-negotiations of the terms. That’s as basic as it gets. To see how that works, just look at what GM and other automakers did with their union contracts – what they were forced by the Government to do as a condition for their bailout....Update 3: Summers suggests that withholding the bonuses could have caused AIG to fail.
There may be other reasons why the Treasury Department decided it wanted AIG to pay these bonuses (Marcy Wheeler considers some of those reasons here), but this claim from Larry Summers that the sanctity of contracts precludes any alternatives is not just false, but insultingly so.
"Secretary Geithner has used all the legal authorities that are open to him to contain and limit the payment of bonuses," said Summers, chairman of the National Economic Council. "What he did not do, and what would have been irresponsible to do, as outrageous as these payments are, would have been to put at risk the stability of the financial system.Are we really supposed to believe that? Other than the AIG lawyers who were paid to tell Liddy exactly what he wanted to hear, who actually believes that a refusal to pay the bonuses could constitute a default and cause AIG to fail?
"To have courted the kind of disaster that followed the decision to let Lehman Brothers simply collapse might have felt good briefly, but it would have touched the lives of a huge number of Americans who would have unnecessarily become unemployed or seen destruction of their lifetime savings."