Politicians campaign in poetry, the saying goes, but govern in prose. True enough. The sausage grinder of the legislative process is neither a thing of beauty nor is it a joy forever. Sometimes, our elected officials even have to govern in code.
Case in point: the cryptic conversation about currency I noted last week. What appear on the surface to be rhetorical misfires, contradictions, and gaffes may actually be efforts by the Obama administration to talk the dollar down as part of its economic game plan. A weaker dollar makes our goods and services more attractive (because they're cheaper) abroad.
That's good news for companies like McDonald's
Alas, adopting such a strategy out loud is a political non-starter. But not to worry, patriotic, economically aware citizens: Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner can mumble and fumble his way toward a depreciated dollar to achieve the desired stimulative effect … without all the pesky political risk of angering major trading partners like China.
Crack the code
A similar process appears to be under way in connection with bank nationalization, which the administration may be furtively plotting to enact. If so, good for them. That approach to the still-looming problem of insolvency remains the solution of choice for many smart economists on both the left and the right.
Yes, the Financial SPDR -- a sector-tracking exchange-traded fund that counts JPMorgan Chase
That's no coincidence. The toxic assets at the failing heart of this crisis remain toxic, after all. And no amount of accounting-gimmick chicanery -- such as the mysterious case of Goldman Sachs'
Unsurprisingly, Treasury's latest bailout plan -- call it Weekend at Bernanke's II, as I did in an interview last month with The Washington Post -- has received a tepid reception from private investors and banks alike. Even the promise of a compulsory co-investor (that would be you, taxpayer) and government-sponsored leverage so far has failed to excite private investors. Heck, even troubled banks whose asset values would presumably benefit aren't too jazzed. The upshot? Credit markets have thawed a tad, but they remain ice-cube cold.
Ice, ice baby
Against that backdrop, savvy types should pay careful attention to reports that the administration is eyeing a conversion of bailout loans to shares of common stock, much like its recent deal with Citigroup. If adopted, this policy would indeed be, as some critics call it, "a back door to nationalization."
And this would be in spite of the fact that the president himself has seemingly disavowed nationalization, saying in a recent interview that the model of Sweden, which nationalized -- and then privatized -- its way out of a nasty '90s-era financial crisis, "wouldn't make sense."
We "have different traditions in this country," the president noted.
Indeed we do. And while Obama specifically dismissed the Swedish model, our traditions include the regular practice of the FDIC, which has been kept plenty busy lately, temporarily seizing banks, doing the dirty work of balance-sheet sanitizing, and then returning the institutions to the capitalist wilds from whence they came -- i.e., back into the hands of private investors.
The FDIC has been seizing insolvent banks to curtail systemic threats as far back as 1934 -- more than 3,000 at last count. Just last July, federal regulators seized failing IndyMac in one of the largest bankruptcies in U.S. history, cleaned up its balance sheet, and within months sold a healthier company to private investors for nearly $14 billion. Call it "nationalization" if you will, but there's nothing distinctly foreign about the idea.
While temporary seizure may not be inevitable, it's a development that even deep-seated skeptics of the government should welcome. (Perhaps while considering shorting a sector that, like Arthur Miller's Willie Loman, has lately succeeded on little more than a shoeshine and a smile.) Until such seizure occurs, credit markets are likely to remain locked up, as will consumer and business-side spending, depending as it does on the availability of affordable financing to grease the wheels of commerce.
Against that backdrop, the kinds of companies that are likely to fare best are well-heeled industry dominators, wide-moat firms whose torrential revenue streams generate plenty of free cash flow. That's not to mention free-flowing capital from tight-fisted lenders when the need arises (as it does even with financially healthy firms) to tap credit lines in order to fund future growth. One such company that I have my eye on is 3M, although I suspect that the near term will serve up fairly tough sledding, as the impact of the global downturn dims the company's revenue-generating prowess both here and abroad.
The Foolish bottom line
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Shannon Zimmerman runs point on the Fool's Duke Street and Ready Made Millionaire services and doesn't own any of the stocks mentioned in this article. Home Depot is an Inside Value selection. PepsiCo is an Income Investor pick. You can check out the Fool's strict disclosure policy right here.