The bank guarantee – what does the Opposition and the media really believe?

Ever since the Rudd Government announced its guarantee for deposits in banks, credit unions and building societies there has been a running commentary from the Opposition and the media about that move.  After a brief flirtation with bipartisanship, following Tony Abbott’s dictum that oppositions should oppose, propose nothing, and turf the government out, the Opposition has embarked on a corrosive process of criticism in the hope that some of the gloss would be rubbed off the Rudd Government.  Even if that were a legitimate course of action for oppositions, it would improve their standing if they at least added their considered opinion on the best course of action, so the public could judge which seemed better, their's or the Government’s.  So far, the only recommendation that Malcolm Turnbull has made was to limit the guarantee to $100,000.  All the rest has been carping criticism.

One would have hoped though that the media might at least have been even-handed, dispassionate and critically analytic, and that their analyses would be based on factual evidence, precedents, experience elsewhere, or well-founded, economically sound arguments.  Sadly that has not been so.

We have seen a wide range of appraisals. Janet Albrechtsen’s 12 October piece Courageous Rudd overcomes history and populism, written the day of the guarantee announcement, says “...the Rudd Government deserves praise for acting responsibly and courageously.” and “Whilst safeguards, limits and restrictions need to be added to today’s measures to avoid them becoming blank cheques for foolishness, the government has clearly demonstrated leadership at a critical time. It is a sign that the Rudd Government is economically responsible in direct contrast to the Liberal Party populists who have ignored the international reality that banks are falling over, or being bailed out by governments, on a weekly basis.”  No mention of bungling.  Paul Kelly too had praise initially, although he subsequently hedged his bets by saying that although the unlimited guarantee was a ‘mistake’ it would do the Government no harm, and that Rudd had played his cards brilliantly.  Predictably, Dennis Shanahan labeled the move as Rudd’s ‘first big mistake’.

As time went by, with the benefit of hindsight, the media began to express even greater doubts.   Some, such as Alan Kohler in Business Spectator on 28 October said in Savings in a stranglehold  “Unless they (Rudd/Swan) are to go down in history as the bumbling fools who wrecked the Australian economy, they must instantly, this morning, put a universal price on the deposit guarantee that was announced on October 12.”  Strong words, but at least he offers advice, namely that every institution be enabled to offer AAA accounts that pay zero interest, and explains how this would work.  Who knows if there’s any merit in his advice, (no one else has publically endorsed his views) but at least he’s explained himself.  Not so the rest of the media. More...

The national interest versus political expediency

When Kevin Rudd likened the effect of the global financial crisis on Australians to a rolling national security crisis, he was ridiculed by Malcolm Turnbull and the media, and cartoons of Rudd in fire-fighting gear soon appeared.  But Rudd was right.  The calamity facing us already has had more effect on most of us than 9/11 and any subsequent security scare.  Turnbull accused Rudd of creating a scenario that would make him look like a knight in shining armour ready to save us from a fate worse than death.  Even if that were so, it doesn’t negate Rudd’s metaphor.

So almost from the beginning Turnbull looked for and found what he believed were base political motives behind Rudd’s moves.

With that level of suspicion it is perhaps surprising that bipartisanship emerged at all, as indeed it did when the Government guarantee on deposits in banks, credit unions and building societies was proposed.  The legislation passed through parliament without a murmur of dissent.  But now all that bonhomie has evaporated.  Why?  Was it that some elements of the Opposition saw such statesmanlike collaboration from their leader as lacking the ‘mongrel’ needed to savage the Government?   In a contribution to a new book Liberals and Power: The Road Ahead, Tony Abbott says: "At one level, the Opposition's most urgent job, between now and the next election, is to publicise the government's mistakes. Randolph Churchill once declared that oppositions should oppose everything, propose nothing and turf the government out. He was right in this fundamental respect: the opposition's job is to get elected. Intelligent oppositions have no unnecessary enemies. They make the government rather than themselves the issue by ensuring that everyone harmed by government decisions well and truly knows about it."  Is it Abbott’s view of the role of oppositions that has changed Opposition tactics?  Maybe, but what a pity it did not follow his other dictum:  ‘have no unnecessary enemies’, instead of creating them as it has done this past week.

So after just a few days political expediency overtook the national interest

Turnbull began by sowing doubts in people’s minds about the merits of the proposal.  Ideas of a ‘cap’ on the guarantee emerged, first Rudd’s $20,000, raised by Turnbull to $100,000, then Rudd’s unlimited guarantee, now modified with a levy applied to deposits over $1 million.  Then, aided and abetted by an article in The Australian Turnbull attacked Rudd for not taking RBA advice which the paper insinuated had not been passed onto Rudd.  As Ken Henry, Secretary of the Treasury and RBA board member was the conduit for such advice to the Government, Turnbull queried whether he had failed to pass on this vital information, and if this were so, would Rudd sack him?  It was at that moment Turnbull lost the initiative he had been building.  His propensity for barrister-speak overrode his need to stick to political-speak.  Not only was that a damaging mistake, but it ‘gave permission’ to others to similarly attack a highly respected public servant. More...

Where has reason flown?

That so many investors seem to be making unreasoned decisions and dumping stock as share prices fall is understandable if they are, as has been described, in a state of blind panic, occasioned by unremitting fear.  But that state of unreason should not infect journalists, who ought to be able to view events with cool dispassion.  Yet we see them apparently also afflicted with unreason. 

Take the Government’s response to the global financial crisis, now just the ‘GFC’.  To have done nothing would have seen the flow of funds from Australian banks, building societies and credit unions to overseas banks that had been guaranteed.  By being the first to offer a government guarantee on bank deposits, Ireland started the inexorable process of ‘follow-the-leader’ with European banks offering the same to stop outflow to Ireland, and banks elsewhere being forced to follow.  Not one commentator has challenged the validity of our Government’s initial move, and it was supported by the Coalition in its passage through the parliament.  But that has not stopped Coalition members and their media cheerleaders from labelling the Government’s actions as having been bungled.  If the initial move was not bungled, what was?  Michael Stutchbury in The Australian says “Not enough work was done on the 100 per cent guarantee when Rudd announced it on October 12.”  Stutchbury does not say what more work was needed.  Because he doesn’t know.  Like so many journalists his learned opinions emerge only after he has gazed down the retrospectoscope. 

On the subject of market-based managed funds, who have frozen redemptions to cut the flow of funds to the guaranteed institutions, Glen Milne in the 25 October issue of the Daily Telegraph in his piece How Wayne Swan made a right royal gaffe canvasses the idea that if the Government had followed Malcolm Turnbull’s suggestion of a $100,000 cap on the deposit guarantee, the flow of funds from the non-guaranteed managed funds would not have occurred to the same extent.  That might be so, but according to Government figures, at $100,000, 40% of bank deposits would not have been covered by the guarantee.  What a protest that would have evoked.  Columnists like Milne seem to be unable to look at the whole picture, preferring instead to cherry-pick aspects that suit their pre-ordained attitude. More...

A plain man’s glossary of finance market terms

To understand what parliamentarians are talking about in Question Time on the current financial upheaval, what the finance experts are saying in the business media, or even what the news bulletins mean, a working knowledge of financial terms is handy.  So this a compilation of terms that until now have not had much airplay, but now are in common use on TV, radio, in the newspapers and online.  It is of necessity incomplete; there are literally thousands of terms that adorn the world of finance.  As it is assumed the meaning of words in common usage, such as ‘mortgage’, ‘interest’, ‘asset’ and ‘term’ is well known, they are not included here.

Acknowledgement is made of the value of Investopedia and Wikipedia in compiling this small lexicon.  For any terms not included here, go to Investopedia and use the search function.

If you feel this glossary is incomplete and that an additional widely-used term would enhance it, or that reordering of the terms would be desirable, please indicate via the Comments facility.

Shares and stock - In financial markets, a share is a unit of account for various financial instruments including stocks, mutual funds, limited partnerships, and Real Estate Investment Trusts. In British English, use of the word ‘shares’ in the plural to refer to stock is so common that it almost replaces the word ‘stock’ itself. In American English, the plural ‘stocks’ is widely used instead of shares, in other words to refer to the stock (or perhaps originally stock certificates) of even a single company. Traditionalist demands that the plural stocks be used only when referring to stock of more than one company are rarely heard nowadays.

The income received from shares is called a dividend, and a person owning shares is called a shareholder.

Stock option -  A privilege, sold by one party to another, that gives the buyer the right, but not the obligation, to buy (call) or sell (put) a stock at an agreed-upon price within a certain period or on a specific date.  In the U.K., it is known as a "share option".  American options can be exercised anytime between the date of purchase and the expiration date. European options may only be redeemed at the expiration date. Most exchange-traded stock options are American.

Security - A security is a negotiable instrument representing financial value. Securities are broadly categorized into debt securities (such as bank notes, bonds and debentures), and equity securities, e.g., common stocks.  Securities may be represented by a certificate or, more typically, by an electronic book entry. More...