“If you owe the bank $100 and can’t pay, you’re in trouble,” goes an old adage about the folly of high leverage, “but if you owe the bank $100 million and can’t pay, the bank’s in trouble.”
That’s how things used to be at least.
To those living through the current era of record bank profits and impossibly tight credit markets, it might seem strange to think about that, something like reminiscing about the world before Google, or before cellphones, or before microwave ovens. It almost seems like the kind of story your grandpa tells, the one about how everything used to be clean and nice and you had to walk 15 miles to school uphill both ways: part senility, part fairy tale.
For those who can’t remember, here’s the abridged version. Once upon a time, before former Treasury secretary Hank Paulson and current Treasury secretary Tim Geithner decided that corporate socialism was the way to go, lenders and creditors suffered through bad times together. The banks knew this, so they were careful when lending to the villagers. Credit was not just a ‘thing,’ like Philly cheesesteaks, or wooden cogs, that you could put in a box and sell willy-nilly if you wanted to make mountains of money. Credit was a magical, mystical essence, a powerful force best described by the lofty motto of Wall Street research firm Dun and Bradstreet: “Credit- Man’s Confidence in Man.”
That story ended in 2008, and while the bankers who were half of the saga lived happily ever after, the other half, the borrowers, found that they now had to suffer through not only the complete destruction of all liquidity, but also the shame of not being able to pay off debt they should have never even had in the first place.
On a seminal Rolling Stone article about this topic, which he addressed by spending a day in a Florida foreclosure court, writer Matt Taibbi perhaps crystallized this best. While the lenders that had used deception, overly optimistic promises and plain fraud to make loans had not had to take a hit for that, the borrowers (whose main transgression was suddenly finding themselves too poor to pay) had to face a judge who could kick them out of their house.
While the banks who showed up in court with clearly made-up paperwork were just told to try again next month, the lenders who did not have an ironclad case were summarily ruled against. While the banks were free to be brazen, the borrowers had nothing to look forward to but being humiliated by the civil justice system. As Taibbi succinctly summarized it, all of this resulted in an upside-down value society “because, in America it’s far more shameful to owe money than it is to steal it.”
Over the past day and a half, all kinds of pundits have confirmed this value judgment by piling on to the City of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, after the fiscally beleaguered municipality chose to seek Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection rather than own up to the crushing $310 million liability for bond payments it had issued to revamp a trash-to-energy incinerator. The story being put around is a familiar, easy-to-digest one, of idiotic town administrators that kept beating the dead horse of a failed local initiative (and betting on it with borrowed money), of crooked contractors, of petty political infighting causing disastrous results.
In case you haven’t read it elsewhere, here’s the story being sold. The city of Harrisburg had this inefficient, money-losing incinerator since the 60s. Several mayors tried to address the issue but it started going deeper and deeper into the red. A political maneuver in the mid-1990s by the county within which the city is located exacerbated the issue by strongly favoring landfills over the incinerator. By 2003, the semi-public enterprise was over $104 million in debt.
That year, the city hired an inexperienced company to revamp the incinerator, at what was expected to be $77 million. Eventually, the contractor fumbled through the project so badly, it ended up delivering it late, at with cost overruns that brought the price tag to $130 million, and so badly implemented as to be almost worthless. The city was left holding the bag, with an incinerator worse than the one it had before 2003 and twice the amount of debt to show for it. Fiscal ruin or bankruptcy were inevitable.
That’s the story you’ll hear, like the ones about the undocumented unemployed that were loading up on liar’s loans to buy luxury condos, of the borrower being reckless, stupid and foolish.
The story you might not hear, is the one that lists the lenders’ sins. Because it doesn’t square neatly with the image of the bumbling politicians messing everything up, you might not hear about how, back in 1993, the New York bond rating agencies pushed the city to move from directly owning the incinerator to creating an independent authority to run it, which saddled debt on the plant and made it easier for the political fiasco of the mid-1990s to come about. The story you might not hear is how those same rating agencies gave excellent grades to that authority they’d midwifed, allowing them to issue $125 in bonds for a project that, in the rosiest of all projections, would take decades to make up for that amount of money.
You might not hear about the banks that underwrote the bonds in spite of knowing the company that had been awarded the contract was an amateurish outfit with no performance insurance (the last being something the lenders, but not the borrowers, knew). You might not hear about the $25 million loan made when the project was already sinking, a punitive loan made to the Authority without the city’s knowledge, something akin to the bank giving daddy a second mortgage on the house without asking mommy.
In the case of the City of Harrisburg, the city council had enough. Yes, it could have submitted to a state-sponsored plan to deal with the debt, which would have jacked up local property taxes and frozen spending. Yes, it could have sold off parking meter collection rights, a crown jewel in municipal revenues, for the pittance it was being offered. It could have, in a word, allowed itself to be shamed.
Instead, the council chose bankruptcy (and the court battles that will entail) over surrender.
“We’re not incompetent,” Councilwoman Susan Brown-Wilson told Bloomberg News, “We’re just not going to let you run us over with the train anymore,” referring to state bureacrats pressuring the city to give up control of its finances and creditors knocking at the door.
And just like that, the town of Harrisburg decided it was not going to buy into the tradition of shaming the borrower when things go bad, and instead was going back to a much older American tradition: “Forget you. Sue me.”