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Companies Compete for Government Cash, Not Customers


Firms shift focus to government handouts, away from real productivity.

It's the government, stupid.

As Washington expands its role in managing the day-to-day operations of American business, companies are increasingly turning their strategic focus to tapping federal cash and lending programs. And despite the strings often attached to government money, many are finding that Uncle Sam is the only game in town during these troubled economic times.

This morning's Wall Street Journal highlights just how essential lawmakers and regulators have become in America's new breed of government-directed capitalism. Hunting retailers, farm-equipment manufacturers, and, of course, banks (Bank of America (BAC), Citigroup (C), Wells Fargo (WFC)) and insurance companies are all sidling up to the government trough.

And even as public opinion slowly turns against bureaucrats' massive intervention into the private economy, Washington insiders are raking in piles of cash. According to the Journal, spending on lobbyists in 2009 could reach $3.3 billion, equal to the total during the 2008 election year. And for good reason: Without representation in Washington, companies just can't compete.

After the financing arm of Deere & Co. (DE) tapped the FDIC to guarantee $2 billion in debt last December, the Equipment Leasing and Finance Association, a trade group, leapt into action to protect other members. Deere rivals, including Caterpillar (CAT) and a host of smaller firms, weren't eligible for government-supported debt issuances, so the group's president asked the Federal Reserve to expand the Troubled Asset Lending Facility to include sales of farm equipment and other machinery.

The Fed acquiesced; the agricultural industry must also be too big to fail.

But not every company has the ear of the Washington power brokers, leaving those forced to go it alone at a distinct disadvantage. Credit is already precious for small businesses, and what little they do have is far more expensive than that of their larger, better-connected rivals. This doesn't bode well for an economy struggling to drag itself out of recession, since small businesses account for the lion's share of job growth on the other side of a downturn.

The eventual recovery, which a growing number of optimists predict is just around the corner, could yield a bitter pill for corners of the economy still heavily dependent on government handouts. Although lawmakers vow to support systemically vital companies and industries for as long as needed, at some point Washington must try to take back what it has so generously given.

Witness the market for home loans, where government purchases of mortgage-backed securities have helped keep rates abnormally low. Even without the Fed dumping its Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE) bond portfolio onto the market, rates have risen sharply in the past month, threatening to forestall the nascent "recovery" in the housing market.

Were the Fed to pull back its support of the housing market, rates would skyrocket. This would be politically -- not to mention economically -- unacceptable.

And while the ideological debate rages over whether Washington bureaucrats are becoming too entrenched in the American economy, businessmen and -women still must get up each morning, head to work, and try to stay above water. And -- insofar as lobbying for government money outstrips developing new technologies or innovating, producing and otherwise generating economic output -- the economy suffers.

And green shoots or no, this economy already has enough cards stacked against it.
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