Federalize BP

President Obama’s declaration that the federal government is in charge of the response to the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is apparently meant to deflect Katrina comparisons and show that his administration is fully engaged. With that p.r. mission accomplished, Obama now needs to turn to the question of what to do about BP.

As a helpful Congressional Research Service report points out, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 gives the federal government three options: monitor the efforts of the spiller, direct the efforts of the spiller, or do the clean-up itself. So far, the Obama Administration has followed the second path and resisted growing pressure to “federalize” the response.

This was said to be necessary because the feds do not have the technical expertise to handle a deepwater leak. As Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the National Incident Commander, put it: “To push BP out of the way would raise the question of: Replace them with what.”

The idea that the government is completely dependent on BP to stop the leak is a dismaying thought. But even if it’s true, it no longer applies once the gusher is brought under control. When the center of attention shifts from 9,000 feet below the surface to the clean-up, there is no reason why BP should continue to run things.

The simple fact is that the company cannot be trusted. As Obama himself noted, the company’s interests diverge from those of the public when it comes to assessing the true extent of the damage and deciding what is necessary in the way of remediation. Keep in mind that BP’s total liability will be determined at least in part by the final estimate of how much oil its screw-ups caused to be released into the ocean. It has every incentive to obscure the full magnitude of the catastrophe.

The company’s motivation in employing massive quantities of the controversial chemical Corexit may have had more to do with dispersing evidence of the spill than with helping the ecosystem of the gulf recover. BP had to be pressured to back off from a plan to have clean-up workers sign confidentiality agreements to prevent them from disclosing what they observed. The company resisted making public the live video feed showing the full force of the oil spewing out of the wrecked well and then delayed making a high-definition version of that video available to federal investigators.

For BP, job one is now not clean-up but cover-up. Allowing it to manage the ongoing response would be akin to allowing the prime suspect in a mass murder to assist in processing the crime scene.

Taking operational control of the clean-up away from BP should be a no-brainer, but it is not enough. This is a company that has repeatedly shown itself to be reckless about safety precautions. The gulf disaster comes on the heels of previous incidents—a 2005 explosion at a refinery in Texas that killed 15 workers and a 2006 series of oil spills at its operations in the Alaskan tundra—in connection with which it pleaded guilty to criminal charges and paid large fines. It was also put on probation that has not yet expired.

An individual who violates probation can be deprived of liberty through imprisonment. A giant corporation that violates its probation—as BP undoubtedly has done by breaking various federal and state laws in its actions precipitating the Deepwater Horizon explosion—cannot be put behind bars, but it can be deprived of freedom of action.

Federal sentencing guidelines (p.534) allow probation officers to monitor the finances of a business or other organization under their supervision. In BP’s case, the issue is safety. One way to ensure that the company acts responsibly is to station inspectors inside all of its U.S. operations (at BP’s expense) to oversee any operational decision that could impact the safety of workers and the environment. Those inspectors would also make it harder for the company to cover up the full extent of what it has done to the Gulf Region.

In other words, the Obama Administration should federalize not only the Gulf of Mexico clean-up but BP itself. That would show that the government really is in charge until we can be sure that the oil giant is no longer a public menace.

Banking Badly

The markets are abuzz with speculation that the Obama Treasury Department may use a scheme known as a “bad bank” as a new gambit in trying to resolve the widening financial crisis. Despite its name, the concept does not involve pillorying corrupt and reckless financial CEOs for their sins—as President Obama in effect did Thursday in expressing outrage over Wall Street bonuses. On the contrary, it is a way of absolving banks for their misguided lending and investment practices by having the government acquire their tainted assets and place them in a separate entity.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is essentially what former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson insisted back in September was essential to the survival of capitalism. Yet after he steamrolled Congress into giving him authority to spend $700 billion on such purchases, he turned around and pursued an entirely different strategy of injecting massive amounts of capital into the banks. Since that approach failed to restore normalcy to the system, Paulson’s successor Timothy Geithner apparently wants to turn the clock back five months.

The mystique surrounding the bad bank idea comes from the fact that Sweden employed the technique to resolve a similar financial crisis 15 years ago. As the New York Times gushed recently: “With Sweden’s banks effectively bankrupt in the early 1990s, a center-right government pulled off a rapid recovery that led to taxpayers making money in the long run.”

Creating a bad bank is being depicted as an alternative to nationalization of major financial institutions. In fact, stock markets shot up on Wednesday after Geithner said the Administration would “do our best to preserve” the system of private ownership of banks.

What bad bank proponents tend to overlook is that the plan would probably involve nationalization as well. This is what happened in Sweden, where the government did not just relieve banks of non-performing loans and then leave them alone. Gota Bank, one of the weakest institutions, was nationalized and was compelled to merge with Nordbanken, which had been owned partly by the government but was then taken over completely (and privatized years later).

There are some other details about the Swedish experience worth noting. First, the government did not acquire the problem assets of all banks, though it did guarantee their obligations. The main bad banks were the ones spun off from Gota Bank and Nordbanken. Second, the troubled assets the government took over via entities called Securum and Retriva were mostly loans to commercial property owners and shares in industrial companies. Securum and Retriva took control of those properties, and when the commercial real estate market rebounded, they were able to sell off those holdings easily.

The financial world has gotten more complicated since the early 1990s. The toxic assets polluting the balance sheets of major U.S. financial institutions today are complex instruments such as mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations. These represent packages of large numbers of loans that cannot easily be disentangled. It is one thing to resell discrete office buildings and shopping malls but quite another to seize and resell thousands of bundled home mortgages. Does the federal government want to become a gargantuan version of those amoral people on late-night infomercials bragging about buying up and then reselling foreclosed homes?

Rather than wasting vast additional sums in a bad-bank bailout, why doesn’t the federal government direct its resources toward the creation of a “good” bank? The Federal Reserve is already acting not just as the lender of last resort to banks but has also provided loans to non-financial corporations by purchasing their commercial paper. Why stop there? If the for-profit banking system really is dysfunctional, then the solution may be to have the federal government step in to replace or supplement it in a major way. That’s the kind of intervention that may actually do us some good.