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More on AIG: Between Hysteria and Complacency

posted by Anna Gelpern

I agree with Adam about all that post-Starr hyperventilation. No, it does not mean that bailouts are over, that the Fed has been slapped down, or any of that lurid stuff. (Though tabloidness does feel strangely gratifying in financial journalism.) Nevertheless, we should be careful not to dismiss the AIG decision as a realist vignette. Its implications for crisis management will become clearer over time, and may well turn out to be important.

At first blush, Starr feels like a stock crisis move by the Court of Claims, evoking the Gold Clause cases in 1935, where the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Congress violated the 14th amendment when it stripped gold clauses from U.S. Government debt, but denied Court of Claims jurisdiction because the creditors suffered no damages. Had they gotten the gold, they would have had to hand it right over to the Feds. And if you measured the creditors' suffering in purchasing power terms, getting their nominal dollars back still put them way ahead of where they had been in 1918 thanks to all the deflation.

Putting this history together with Starr, I wonder about two implications. First, it would have to be awfully hard for a firm getting federal rescue funds in a systemic crisis to prove damages. See also the car bailout stuff. By definition, the firm's best case is the gray zone between illiquidity and insolvency (I called it "illiquency" back then). If you accept that a court is unlikely to enjoin a caper like AIG in the middle of a crisis, this gives the government a fair amount of scope to act, even if it turns out to be off on authority after the fact.

Second, the Greek mess makes me think that the real concern in crisis is not with ex ante constraints on bailouts working as planned, but rather with accidental institutional malfunction. At some point (not yet), all the sand in the wheels will create enough friction that policy makers will not be able to respond to a tail event in a sensible way. No institution would have the authority to do "whatever it takes," and no decision-maker would be willing to take the risk. Maybe this is as it should be, but it does give me pause. 

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