More on the Profligate vs the Prudent

Thu, 10 Apr 2008 14:50:51 +0000

Via the Real Time Economics blog, Daniel Gross makes the point from my recent post on the profligate vs. the prudent better than I did in his Moneybox column on Monday, "A Tax Break for Bubble Heads." His vehicle is the legislation moving through Congress to provide tax breaks and assistance to the housing industry. Here's the key excerpt:

The proposed tax break [an extended tax-loss carryback] is hard to justify for several reasons. It does nothing for slow and steady companies that keep their heads and simply rack up profits year after year—and pay their taxes accordingly. Rather, it rewards the most reckless participants in the bubble. If you borrowed a ton of money to build spec houses in Miami and reported $2 billion in profits between 2002 and 2007 but gave up all those profits by notching a $2 billion loss this year, the extended carryback has a great deal of value. If you've been building affordable housing in Wichita, Kan., and booked $300 million in profits in those years, and then, through careful management of costs, managed to eke out a $5 million profit this year, it has no value. The big public homebuilders, whose shares rallied on the news of this potential tax break, didn't pay any windfall taxes on the bubble-era earnings. Why should they get an extraordinary post-bubble windfall?

The question answers itself, to anyone outside of the industry and Congress. What ever happened to promoting the general welfare? I also like the way Gross followed up on this thought:

Homebuilders argue that they need relief because their sector, which provides a great deal of domestic employment, is on the ropes, and they're finding it more difficult to raise capital. Which is as it should be. After bubbles pop, those who screwed up really badly fail and get taken over by creditors or opportunistic investors. Those who have sound underlying franchises but merely got a little carried away can survive if they take painful restructuring moves. This is what is known as market capitalism. For all the talk of a credit crunch, capital is still available—it's just not available on the easy terms managers had come to expect during the late Greenspan years.

And that is as it should be. Read the whole thing.