The Banking Plan
Thanks to last night’s White House info dump, we now have gotten the outlines of the White House’s banking recovery plan. As I mentioned earlier this week, the banking problem is the fundamental issue in the current financial crisis. We’ve been waiting for the White House to give it to us. Now that we’ve got it, I don’t like it much.
The details, as reported, are as follows:
The plan to be announced next week involves three separate approaches. In one, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation will set up special-purpose investment partnerships and lend about 85 percent of the money that those partnerships will need to buy up troubled assets that banks want to sell.
In the second, the Treasury will hire four or five investment management firms, matching the private money that each of the firms puts up on a dollar-for-dollar basis with government money.
In the third piece, the Treasury plans to expand lending through the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility, a joint venture with the Federal Reserve.
The goal of the plan is to leverage the dwindling resources of the Treasury Department’s bailout program with money from private investors to buy up as many of those toxic assets as possible and free the banks to resume more normal lending…
Although the details of the F.D.I.C. part were still being completed on Friday, it is expected that the government will provide the overwhelming bulk of the money — possibly more than 95 percent — through loans or direct investments of taxpayer money.
The hope is that such a generous taxpayer subsidy will attract private investors into the market and accelerate the recovery of the country’s banks.
The key protection for taxpayers, according to people briefed on the plan, is that the private investors will bid in auctions against each other for the assets. As a result, administration officials contend, the government will be buying the troubled loans of the banks at a deep discount to their original face value.
That last paragraphs is a howler, since it’s so self-evidently untrue. As Ezra Klein at The American Prospect–hardly an enemy of the Obama Administration–notes:
You almost wonder if that’s a typo. It seems to imply that the protection comes because private investors will accurately price the assets. After all, they don’t want to lose money.
But it’s not their money. It’s our money. The plan uses public funds to protect and subsidize private investors. As such, a private auction will not price the assets. It will price the potential upside of the assets given that taxpayers will assume the brunt of the losses. [Emphasis mine–EDF]
As illustration, imagine an art auction. Now imagine an art auction where Sotheby’s loans money to the participants and promises to pay the losses if the paintings fall in value. Think the pricing will be the same? And who would you say is being protected: Sotheby’s or the private investors? As Calculated Risk says, “With almost no skin in the game, these investors can pay a higher than market price for the toxic assets (since there is little downside risk). This amounts to a direct subsidy from the taxpayers to the banks.”
As for the contention that “the government will be buying the troubled loans of the banks at a deep discount to their original face value,” I’m not even sure what to say about that. Their original face value was a lie. If I pretend this beautiful bic pen is worth $60 million and then sell it to you for $1.00, you’re not getting a $59,999,999 discount because I’ve come down from the imaginary price where I started. The question is what these assets are actually worth, and whether taxpayers are paying more or less than that. We’re in this mess because the original face value is wrong.
I don’t know how to explain it any better than that. Moreover, Ezra links to Yves Smith, who further comments:
First, the banks, as in normal auctions, will presumably set a reserve price equal to the value of the assets on their books. If the price does not meet the reserve (and the level of the reserve is not disclosed to the bidders), there is no sale; in this case, the bank would keep the toxic instruments.
Having the banks realize a price at least equal to the value they hold it at on their books is a boundary condition. If the banks sell the assets as a lower level, it will result in a loss, which is a direct hit to equity. The whole point of this exercise is to get rid of the bad paper without further impairing the banks.
So presumably, the point of a competitive process (assuming enough parties show up to produce that result at any particular auction) is to elicit a high enough price that it might reach the bank’s reserve, which would be the value on the bank’s books now.
And notice the utter dishonesty: a competitive bidding process will protect taxpayers. Huh? A competitive bidding process will elicit a higher price which is BAD for taxpayers!
Dear God, the Administration really thinks the public is full of idiots. But there are so many components to the program, and a lot of moving parts in each, they no doubt expect everyone’s eyes to glaze over.
The last point is another big problem. There are a number of other ways to accomplish recapitalization, from just purchasing the assets from the banks for cash to outright nationalization of the banks. Whether we would actually like those options is another story, but at least they have the virtue of simplicity. Even laymen would be able to grasp their essentials. That certainly isn’t true is the case of what the Obama Administration has released. It is complicated. It’s made of three different parts, all of which are complicated in their own special ways. Ezra Klein again:
If it goes bad — and it really might go bad, and the details might prove galling in much the way that AIG’s bonuses did — the byzantine approach could well leave voters feeling tricked. That risk might make sense if this were the only viable path forward. But it’s actually hard to imagine the set of questions you ask that ends in this particular answer.
And it’s difficult to see how this actually becomes an answer in the real world. The trouble with these kinds of complicated plans is that they so often crash against the rocks of reality. When one part of the plan goes awry, the whole plan breaks up. With the triple complications of the plan leaked by the administration, there is a not insignificant chance that the plan will fail due to it’s unnecessary complexity.
I don’t think that will be helpful.