Allowing companies to fail

I suspect (but can’t prove) that creative destruction is one of the under appreciated factors that underpin the health of the economy. There is quite a lot of evidence however that creative destruction has been suppressed since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. The rights and wrongs of the extent to which bail-outs were and continue to be necessary is too big a topic to cover in this post.

For the record, I do believe that the bail-outs of the banks were necessary at the time but that “bail-in” gives bank supervisors a very real option to avoid having to do this in the future. The increase in capital requirements are also likely to reduce the risk of a bail-in being required. Others may disagree and my views chiefly relate to the Australian banking system which is where my professional expertise is based. The issues associated with COVID-19 raise a whole lot of related but, in many ways, different issues. At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s complicated.

Against that background, I found this short article published on the VoxEU website worth reading as another reminder of the value of allowing companies to fail and/or be restructured. The conclusion of the article (copied below) gives you the key points the authors derive from their research

We investigate a large number of stakeholders that could be negatively affected by a fire sale but find little evidence for negative externalities. The main effect of fire sales is a wealth transfer from the seller to the buyer. Thus, from a welfare perspective, the costs associated with fire sales of corporate assets are much lower than previously thought based on an analysis of seller costs only. From a policy perspective, these findings indicate that the merits of bailouts as a response to the potential losses associated with fire sales are limited, especially given the moral hazard and the other distortions caused by these bailouts. 

We recognise that the economic shock caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is unparalleled since the WWII and the Great Depression, and hence, some emergency measures and bailouts were likely necessary to prevent a meltdown of economic activity. However, one difference between the current crisis and the Global Crisis is the apparent lack of fire sales of struggling companies or investments into such companies at fire-sale prices. Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, for instance, invested $5 billion in Goldman Sachs in September 2008 and $3 billion in General Electric in October 2008, while Warren Buffett’s firm has not undertaken any major investments during the COVID-19 crisis (Financial Times 2020). Our results therefore suggest that, at least at the margin, fire sales would have been an effective alternative to bailouts, especially for large bailouts such as for the airlines in the US.

“The merits of fire sales and bailouts in light of the COVID-19 pandemic”, Jean-Marie Meier and Henri Servaes, 18 January 2021.