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European Sovereign Debt Crisis Gets Scary

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The simplest explanation of the European sovereign debt crisis came from Joe Weisenthal at the Business Insider website.  He compared the yield on the 5-year bond for Sweden with that of Finland, illustrated by charts, which tracked those yields for the past year:

Basically they look identical all through the year up until November and then BAM.  Finnish yields are exploding higher, right as Swedish yields are blasting lower.

The only obvious difference between the two:   Finland is part of the Eurozone, meaning it can’t print its own money. Sweden has no such risk.

While everyone’s attention was focused on the inability of Greece to pay the skyrocketing interest rates on its bonds, Italy snuck up on us.  The Italian debt crisis has become so huge that many commentators are voicing concern that “sovereign debt contagion” across the Eurozone is spreading faster than we could ever imagine.  The Los Angeles Times is now reporting that Moody’s Investors Service is ready to hit the panic button:

Throwing more logs on the Eurozone fire, Moody’s Investors Service said early Monday that the continent’s debt crisis now is “threatening the credit standing of all European sovereigns.”

That’s a not-so-subtle warning that even Moody’s top-rung Aaa ratings of countries including Germany, France, Austria and the Netherlands could be in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, every pundit seems to have a different opinion about how the crisis will unfold and what should be done about it.  The latest buzz concerns a widely-published rumor that the IMF is preparing a 600 billion euro ($794 billion) loan for Italy.  The problem with that scenario is that most of those billions would have to come from the United States – meaning that Congress would have to approve it.  Don’t count on it.  Former hedge fund manager, Bruce Krasting provided a good explanation of the Italian crisis and its consequences:

I think the Italian story is make or break.  Either this gets fixed or Italy defaults in less than six months.  The default option is not really an option that policy makers would consider.  If Italy can’t make it, then there will be a very big crashing sound.  It would end up taking out most of the global lenders, a fair number of countries would follow into Italy’s vortex.  In my opinion a default by Italy is certain to bring a global depression; one that would take many years to crawl out of.  The policy makers are aware of this too.

So I say something is brewing.  And yes, if there is a plan in the works it must involve the IMF.  And yes, it’s going to be big.

Please do not read this and conclude that some headline is coming that will make us all feel happy again.  I think headlines are coming.  But those headlines are likely to scare the crap out of the markets once the implications are understood.

In the real world of global finance the reality is that any country that is forced to accept an IMF bailout is also blocked from issuing debt in the public markets.  IMF (or other supranational debt) is ALWAYS senior to other indebtedness of the country. That’s just the way it works.  When Italy borrows money from the IMF it automatically subordinates the existing creditors. Lenders hate this.  They will vote with their feet and take a pass at Italian new debt issuance for a long time to come.  Once the process starts, it will not end.  There will be a snow ball of other creditors.  That’s exactly what happened in the 80′s when Mexico failed; within a year two dozen other countries were forced to their debt knees.  (I had a front row seat.)

I don’t see a way out of this box.  The liquidity crisis in Italy is scaring us to death, the solution will almost certainly kill us.

Forcing taxpayers to indemnify banks which made risky bets on European sovereign debt is popular with K Street lobbyists and their Congressional puppets.  This has led most people to assume that we will be handed the bill.  Fortunately, there are some smart people around, who are devising better ways to get “out of this box”.  Economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds, proposed this idea to facilitate significant writedowns on Greek bonds while helping banks cope the impact of accepting 25 percent of the face value of those bonds, rather than the hoped-for 50 percent:

Given the extremely high leverage ratios of European banks, it appears doubtful that it will be possible to obtain adequate capital through new share issuance, as they would essentially have to duplicate the existing float.  For that reason, I suspect that before this is all over, much of the European banking system will be nationalized, much of the existing debt of the European banking system will be restructured, and those banks will gradually be recapitalized, post-restructuring and at much smaller leverage ratios, through new IPOs to the market.  That’s how to properly manage a restructuring – you keep what is essential to the economy, but you don’t reward the existing stock and bondholders – it’s essentially what we did with General Motors.  That outcome is not something to be feared (unless you’re a bank stockholder or bondholder), but is actually something that we should hope for if the global economy is to be unchained from the bad debts that were enabled by financial institutions that took on imponderably high levels of leverage.

Notably, credit default swaps are blowing out even in the U.S., despite leverage ratios that are substantially lower (in the 10-12 range, versus 30-40 in Europe).  As of last week, CDS spreads on U.S. financials were approaching and in some cases exceeding 2009 levels.  Bank stocks are also plumbing their 2009 depths, but with a striking degree of calm about it, and a definite tendency for scorching rallies on short-covering and “buy-the-dip” sentiment.  There is a strong mood on Wall Street that we should take these developments in stride.  I’m not convinced.  Our own measures remain defensive about the prospective return/risk tradeoff in the stock market.

The impact this crisis will have on the stock market explains why mainstream news media coverage has consistently understated the magnitude of the situation.  It will be interesting to observe how the “happy talk” gets amped-up as the situation deteriorates.


Widespread Disappointment With Financial Reform

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Exactly one year ago, I wrote a piece entitled, “Financial Reform Bill Exposed As Hoax” wherein I expressed my outrage that the financial reform effort had become a charade.  The final product resulting from all of the grandstanding and backroom deals – the Dodd–Frank bill – had become nothing more than a hoax on the American public.  My essay included the reactions of five commentators, who were similarly dismayed.  I concluded the posting with this remark:

The bill that is supposed to save us from another financial crisis does nothing to accomplish that objective.  Once this 2,000-page farce is signed into law, watch for the reactions.  It will be interesting to sort out the clear-thinkers from the Kool-Aid drinkers.

During the year since that posting, I felt a bit less misanthropic each time someone spoke out, wrote an article or made a presentation demonstrating that our government’s “financial reform” effort was nothing more than political theater.  Last July, Rich Miller of Bloomberg News reported that according to a Bloomberg National Poll, almost eighty percent of those surveyed expressed “just a little or no confidence” that the financial reform bill would make their financial assets more secure.  Forty-seven percent believed that the bill would do more to protect the financial industry than consumers.  The American public is not as dumb as most people claim!

This past week brought us three great perspectives on the worthlessness of our government’s financial reform facade.  I was surprised that the most impressive presentation came from a Fed-head!   Thomas M. Hoenig, President and CEO of the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank, gave a speech at New York University’s Stern School of Business, concerning the future of “systemically important financial institutions” or “SIFIs” and the Dodd-Frank Act.  (Bill Black prefers to call them “systemically dangerous institutions” or “SDIs”.)   After a great discussion of the threat these entities pose to our financial system and the moral hazard resulting from the taxpayer-financed “safety net”, which allows creditors of the SIFIs to avoid accountability for risks taken, Tom Hoenig focused on Dodd-Frank:

Following this financial crisis, Congress and the administration turned to the work of repair and reform.  Once again, the American public got the standard remedies – more and increasingly complex regulation and supervision.  The Dodd-Frank reforms have all been introduced before, but financial markets skirted them.  Supervisory authority existed, but it was used lightly because of political pressure and the misperceptions that free markets, with generous public support, could self-regulate.

Dodd-Frank adds new layers of these same tools, but it fails to employ one remedy used in the past to assure a more stable financial system – simplification of our financial structure through Glass-Steagall-type boundaries.  To this end, there are two principles that should guide our efforts to restore such boundaries.  First, institutions that have access to the safety net should be restricted to certain core activities that the safety net was intended to protect – making loans and taking deposits – and related activities consistent with the presence of the safety net.

Second, the shadow banking system should be reformed in its use of money market funds and short-term repurchase agreements – the repo market.  This step will better assure that the safety net is not ultimately called upon to bail them out in crisis.

Another engaging perspective on financial reform efforts came from Phil Angelides, who served as chairman of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which conducted televised hearings concerning the causes of the financial crisis and issued its final report in January.  On June 27, Angelides wrote an article for The Washington Post wherein he discussed what caused the financial crisis, the current efforts to “revise the historical narrative” of what led to the economic catastrophe, as well as the efforts to undermine, subvert and repeal the meager reforms Dodd-Frank authorized.  Angelides didn’t pull any punches when he upbraided Congressional Republicans for conduct which the Democrats have been too timid (or complicit) to criticize:

If you are Rep. Paul Ryan, you ignore the fact that our federal budget deficit has ballooned more than $10 trillion annually since the financial collapse.  You disregard the reality that two-thirds of the deficit increase is directly attributable to the economic downturn and bipartisan fiscal measures adopted to bolster the economy.  Instead of focusing on the real cause of the deficit, you conflate today’s budgetary disaster with the long-term challenges of Medicare so you can shred the social safety net.

*   *   *

If you are most congressional Republicans, you turn a blind eye to the sad history of widespread lending abuses that savaged communities across the country and pledge to block the appointment of anyone to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau unless its authority is weakened.  You ignore the evidence of pervasive excess that wrecked our financial markets and attempt to cut funding for the regulators charged with curbing it.  Across the board, you refuse to acknowledge what went wrong and then try to stop efforts to make it right.

David Sirota wrote a great essay for Salon entitled, “America’s unique hatred of finance reform”.  Sirota illustrated how bipartisan efforts to undermine financial reform are turning America into – what The Daily Show with Jon Stewart called – “Sweden’s Mexico”:

On one hand, Europe’s politics of finance seem to be gradually moving in the direction of Sweden — that is, in the direction of growth and stability.  As the Washington Post reports, that Scandinavian country — the very kind American Tea Party types write off with “socialist” epithets — has the kind of economy the U.S. can now “only dream of:  growing rapidly, creating jobs and gaining a competitive edge (as) the banks are lending, the housing market booming (and) the budget is balanced.”  It has accomplished this in part by seriously regulating its banking sector after it collapsed in the 1990s.

*   *   *

After passing an embarrassingly weak financial “reform” bill that primarily cemented the status quo, the U.S. government is now delaying even the most minimal new rules that were included in the legislation.  At the same time, Senate Republicans are touting their plans to defund any new financial regulatory agencies; the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee has declared that “Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks” — not the other way around; and the Obama administration is now trying to force potential economic partners to accept financial deregulation as a consequence of bilateral trade deals.

Meanwhile, the presidential campaign already looks like a contest between two factions of the same financial elite — a dynamic that threatens to make the 2012 extravaganza a contest to see which party can more aggressively suck up to the banks.

Any qualified, Independent political candidate, who is willing to step up for the American middle class and set out a plan of action to fight the financial industry as well as its lobbyists, would be well-positioned for a 2012 election victory.



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Grasping Reality With The Opinions Of Others

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In the course of attempting to explain or criticize complex economic and financial issues, it usually becomes necessary to quote from the experts – often at length – to provide an understandable commentary.  Nevertheless, it was with great pleasure that I read about a dust-up involving Megan McArdle’s use of a published interview conducted by Bruce Bigelow of Xconomy, without attribution.  The incident was recently discussed by Brad DeLong.  (If you are a regular reader of Professor DeLong’s blog, you might recognize the title of this posting as a variant on the name of his website.)  Before I move on, it will be necessary to expand this moment of schadenfreude, due to the ironic timing of the controversy.  On March 7, Time published a list of “The 25 Best Financial Blogs”, with McArdle’s blog as number 15.  Aside from the fact that many worthy bloggers were overlooked by Time (including Mish and Simon Johnson) the list drew plenty of criticism for its inclusion of McArdle’s blog.  Here are just some of the comments to that effect, which appeared on the Naked Capitalism website:

duffolonious says:

Megan McArdle?  Seriously?  I’ve seen so many people rip her to shreds that I’ve completely ignored her.

Is she another example of nepotism?  Like Bill Kristol.

Procopius says:

Basically yes, although not quite as blatant.  Her old man was an inspector of contracting in New York City.  He got surprisingly rich.  From that he went to starting his own contracting business.  He got surprisingly rich.  Then he went back to New York City in an even higher level supervisory job.  He got surprisingly rich.  So Megan went to good schools and had her daddy’s network of influential “friends” to help her with her “job search” when she graduated.  Of course, she’s no dummy, and did a professional job of networking with all the “right” people she met at school, too.

For my part, in order to discuss the proposed settlement resulting from the investigation of the five largest banks and mortgage servicers conducted by state attorneys general and federal officials (including the Justice Department, the Treasury and the newly-formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) I will rely on the commentary from some of my favorite financial bloggers.  The investigating officials submitted this 27-page proposal as the starting point for what is expected to be a weeks-long negotiation process, possibly resulting in some loan modifications as well as remedies for those who faced foreclosures expedited by the use of “robo-signers” and other questionable practices.

Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism criticized the settlement proposal as “Bailout as Reward for Institutionalized Fraud”:

The argument defenders of the deal make are twofold:  this really is a good deal (hello?) and it’s as far as the Obama Administration is willing to push the banks, so we have to put a lot of lipstick on this pig and resign ourselves to political necessities.  And the reason the Obama camp is trying to declare victory and go home is that it is afraid that any serious effort to deal with the mortgage mess will reveal the insolvency of the banks.

Team Obama had put on a full court press since March 2009 to present the banks as fundamentally sound, and to the extent they needed more dough, the stress tests and resulting capital raising took care of any remaining problems.  Timothy Geithner was even doing victory laps last month in Europe.  To reverse course now and expose the fact that writedowns on second mortgages held by the four biggest banks and plus the true cost of legal liabilities from the mortgage crisis (putbacks, servicer fraud, chain of title issues) would blow a big hole in the banks’ balance sheets and fatally undermine whatever credibility the officialdom still has.

But the fallacy of their thinking is that addressing and cleaning up this rot would lead to a financial crisis, therefore anything other than cosmetics and making life inconvenient for the banks around the margin is to be avoided at all costs.  But these losses exist already.  The fallacy lies in the authorities’ delusion that they are avoiding creating losses, when we are in fact talking about who should bear costs that already exist.

The perspective taken by Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns focused on the extent to which we can find the fingerprints of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner on the settlement proposal.  Ed Harrison emphasized the significance of Geithner’s final remarks from an interview conducted last year by Daniel Gross for Slate:

The test is whether you have people willing to do the things that are deeply unpopular, deeply hard to understand, knowing that they’re necessary to do and better than the alternatives.

From there, Ed Harrison illustrated how Geithner’s roadmap has been based on the willingness to follow that logic:

More than ever, Tim Geithner runs the show for economic policy. He is the last man standing of the Old Obama team.  Volcker, Summers, Orszag, and Romer are all gone.  So Geithner’s vision of bailouts and settlements is the one that carries the most weight.

What is Geithner saying with his policies?

  • The financial system was on the verge of collapse.  We all know that now – about US banks and European ones too.  Fed Chair Ben Bernanke has said so as has Bank of England head Mervyn King.  The WikiLeaks cables affirmed systemic insolvency as the real issue most demonstrably.
  • When presented with a choice of Japan or Sweden as the model for crisis resolution, the US felt the Japan banking crisis response was the best historical precedent.  It is still unclear whether this was a political or an economic decision.
  • The most difficult political aspect of the banking crisis response was socialising bank lossesAll banking crisis bailouts involve some form of loss socialisation and this is a policy which citizens find abhorrent.  That’s what Geithner meant most directly about ‘deeply unpopular, deeply hard to understand’.
  • Using pro-inflationary monetary policy and fiscal stimulus, the U.S. can put this crisis in the rear view mirror.  Low interest rates and a steep yield curve combined with bailouts, stress tests, dividend reductions and private capital will allow time to heal all wounds.  That is the Geithner view.
  • Once the system is healthy again, it should expand.  The reason you need to bail the banks out is that they have expansion opportunities abroad.  As emerging markets develop more sophisticated financial markets, the Treasury secretary believes American banks are well positioned to profit.  American finance can’t profit if you break up the banks.

I would argue that Tim Geithner believes we are almost at that final stage where the banks are now healthy enough to get bigger and take share in emerging markets.  His view is that a more robust regulatory environment will keep things in check and prevent another financial crisis.

I hope this helps to explain why the Obama Administration is keen to get this $20 billion mortgage settlement done.  The prevailing view in the Administration is that the U.S. is in a fragile but sustainable recovery.  With emerging markets leading the economic recovery and U.S. banks on sounder footing, now is the time to resume the expansion of U.S. financial services.  I should also add that given the balance sheet recession in the U.S., the only way banks can expand is via an expansion abroad.

I strongly disagree with this vision of America’s future economic development.  But this is the road we are on.

Will those of us who refuse to believe in Tinkerbelle face the blame for the next financial crisis?



A Bad Week For Rupert Murdoch

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We all know how this awful week began.  For Rupert Murdoch, one of his prized investments — Sarah Palin — had become the subject of heated debate.  Murdoch’s News Corp publishes her ghost-written books and Palin works for News Corp’s Fox News as a contributor.  While a team of doctors in Tucson heroically scrambled to save the life of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, a team of spin doctors at Fox News scrambled to save the political life of Sarah Palin.  At this point, I defer to an excellent piece written by Glynnis MacNicol of The Business Insider:

It is clear that Palin spent the last few days testing the waters and leaving the heavy lifting of the defending her to the folks at Fox News, most notably Glenn Beck.

As Ms. MacNicol explained, Palin returned to her Facebook page on January 12:

In equally typical fashion, Palin offered little introspection into her role in the political dialogue of the past year and laid the blame directly at the feet of the media, whom she accused of “blood libel.”

As MacNicol and many other commentators pointed out, this choice of words exemplified yet another classic Palin mistake.  Palin’s gaffe drew criticism from the Anti-Defamation League and it gave her critics yet another opportunity to emphasize that Palin has been in over her head with her attempts to establish a national leadership identity.  The Hill quoted what Representative James Clyburn had to say about Palin’s latest misstep:

“You know, Sarah Palin just can’t seem to get it, on any front. I think she’s an attractive person, she is articulate,” Clyburn said on the Bill Press radio show. “But I think intellectually, she seems not to be able to understand what’s going on here.”

While Rupert Murdoch’s investment in Sarah Palin was obviously deteriorating and becoming an embarrassment for his Fox News organization, things were headed in a more catastrophic direction in his Australian homeland.  The intense flooding that had been ongoing for the past several weeks was being attributed to climate change.  A report from Reuters began with this statement:

Climate change has likely intensified the monsoon rains that have triggered record floods in Australia’s Queensland state, scientists said on Wednesday, with several months of heavy rain and storms still to come.

Although Murdoch now personally admits that climate change poses a serious environmental threat, his News Corp subsidiaries have an established track record of denying that any such threat exists.

An article from the Treehugger website provided details about how badly conditions had deteriorated in Queensland:

When 75% of Queensland is disaster declared due to flooding, that is a huge area, roughly equivalent to two Texas’s or the entirety of South Africa.  On the 31st of December Reuters was saying flood water was “covering an area bigger than France and Germany combined, inundating 22 towns and stranding 200,000 people.”  This is a continually unfolding natural disaster, of which the financial bill alone was projected to reach $5 billion AUD, and that was before the flash flooding of the past day or so.

*   *   *

Australia is a rich, industrialised ‘First World’ country.  But it’s third most populous state, Queensland, is currently coping with floods which have already decimated food crops, livestock, road and rail infrastructure, mining and so on.  The impacts of which will flow on (pardon the pun) to effect most every Australian. Already some particular fruits have all but disappeared from commercial markets.

If all that weren’t bad enough, what must have been the most chilling news for Rupert Murdoch came from Julian Assange of Wikileaks.  Ian Burrell of The Independent provided this report:

A year that has begun badly for Rupert Murdoch grew a little worse yesterday after the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, claimed to be in possession of secret documents damaging to the media mogul and his News Corp empire.

Mr Assange told John Pilger in the New Statesman he had withheld a cache of confidential US government cables and files relating to Mr Murdoch’s business as “insurance”.  He has claimed that his life is in danger if he is extradited to Sweden to face allegations of sexual assault.

*   *   *

Mr Assange indicated that he had paperwork which could be hurtful to News Corp.  “There are 504 US embassy cables on one broadcasting organisation and there are cables on Murdoch and News Corp.”

Assange does lots of talking about documents he is holding as “insurance”.  Nevertheless, many commentators have mentioned the possibility all this boasting could amount to nothing more than a bluffing strategy.

In addition to discussing the Wikileaks threat, the Independent article provided us with the perspective of a former Murdoch associate on the possibility that Rupert might not be too happy with the way things are going at Fox News:

In a further broadside yesterday, one of Mr Murdoch’s former henchmen, Andrew Neil, publicly questioned whether the world’s most powerful media figure retained his grip over his organisation.

*   *   *

“My own view is [Fox] is out of control,” Neil told Richard Bacon yesterday on BBC Radio 5 Live.  “I think Rupert Murdoch has lost control of it. I know from sources he’s not happy with a lot that appears on it and I think he’s lost over the Glenn Becks and the O’Reillys,” said Mr Neil.

“[Murdoch] is uncomfortable with Glenn Beck and various other positions they take and some of the things they say.”  Neil, who fell out with Mr Murdoch in the early Nineties, claimed he had “very good sources at the heart of News Corp”.

If there is any truth to Andrew Neil’s revelations, it will be very interesting to see if Mr. Murdoch makes any changes at Fox News, due to his reported concerns.  Either way, 2011 could turn out to be a very important year for Rupert Murdoch.



It’s Time For Obama And Geithner To Blink

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February 16, 2009

On Tuesday, February 10, our newly-appointed Treasury Secretary, “Turbo” Tim Geithner, rolled out a vague description of his new “Financial Stability Plan”.  Most commentators were shocked at the lack of information Geithner provided about this proposal.

This was in stark contrast with President Obama’s description of what we would hear from Geithner, as the President explained during his February 9 press conference.  In response to a question by Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press, concerning his earlier statements about the worsening recession, Obama stated:

And so tomorrow my Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, will be announcing some very clear and specific plans for how we are going to start loosening up credit once again.

Later in the conference, Julianna Goldman of Bloomberg News asked the President how he could expect the remaining $350 billion in available in TARP funds to solve the problems with the financial system when individuals, such as economist Nouriel Roubini, have explained that the price tag for such a fix could exceed a trillion dollars.  Again, the President explained:

We also have to deal with the housing issue in a clear and consistent way.  I don’t want to preempt my Secretary of the Treasury; he’s going to be laying out these principles in great detail tomorrow.

Yet again, in response to a question from Helene Cooper of The New York Times as to whether financial institutions receiving federal bailout money would be required to resume lending again, the President responded:

Again, Helene — and I’m trying to avoid preempting my Secretary of the Treasury, I want all of you to show up at his press conference as well; he’s going to be terrific.

Despite this hype, the following day’s presentation by Tim Geithner offered neither “clear and specific plans” nor “great detail” about the principles involved.  Nearly all of the editorials dealing with this strange event voiced a negative appraisal of Geithner’s discourse, particularly due to the complete absence of any discussion of specific measures to be employed by the Department of the Treasury.  Did something change between Monday night and Tuesday’s event?  Recent developments suggest that disagreements over the details of this plan, particularly those related to the possible “nationalization” of insolvent banks, forced the entire project into a state of flux.

Prior to last Tuesday’s fiasco, Geithner admitted to David Brooks of The New York Times that he was averse to the idea of nationalizing insolvent banks, even on a temporary basis:

Therefore, Geithner argues, the government doesn’t need to go in and nationalize the banks.  “It’s very important that we don’t look like there’s any intent of taking over or managing banks.  Governments are terrible managers of bad assets.  There’s no good history of governments doing that well.”

Geithner’s throwaway argument was disputed by Joe Nocera in the February 13 New York Times:

But that’s a canard.  The government did a terrific job managing banks during the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s.  It took over banks — “we called them bridge banks,” recalled William Seidman, the former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, with a chuckle — replaced their top managers and directors, stripped out bad assets that the government then managed brilliantly, and sold the newly healthy banks to private buyers.  It turned out not to be all that hard to find actual bankers who could run these S.& L.’s for the federal government.

Geithner’s resistance to nationalization of insolvent banks represents a stark departure from the recommendations of many economists.  While attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last month, Dr. Nouriel Roubini explained (during an interview on CNBC) that the cost of purchasing the toxic assets from banks will never be recouped by selling them in the open market:

At which price do you buy the assets?  If you buy them at a high price, you are having a huge fiscal cost.  If you buy them at the right market price, the banks are insolvent and you have to take them over.   So I think it’s a bad idea.   It’s another form of moral hazard and putting on the taxpayers, the cost of the bailout of the financial system.

Dr. Roubini’s solution is to face up to the reality that the banks are insolvent and “do what Sweden did”:  take over the banks, clean them up by selling off the bad assets and sell them back to the private sector.  On February 15, Dr. Roubini repeated this theme in a Washington Post article he co-wrote with fellow New York University economics professor, Matthew Richardson.

Even after Geithner’s disastrous press conference, President Obama voiced a negative reaction to the Swedish approach during an interview with Terry Moran of ABC News:

Sweden, on the other hand, had a problem like this.  They took over the banks, nationalized them, got rid of the bad assets, resold the banks and, a couple years later, they were going again.  So you’d think looking at it, Sweden looks like a good model.  Here’s the problem; Sweden had like five banks.  [LAUGHS] We’ve got thousands of banks.  You know, the scale of the U.S. economy and the capital markets are so vast and the problems in terms of managing and overseeing anything of that scale,  I think, would — our assessment was that it wouldn’t make sense.  And we also have different traditions in this country.

Obviously, Sweden has a different set of cultures in terms of how the government relates to markets and America’s different.  And we want to retain a strong sense of that private capital fulfilling the core — core investment needs of this country.

Obama’s strident resistance to the Swedish approach could force him into an embarrassing situation, in the event that he changes his view of that strategy.  This may happen once Geithner begins applying his “stress tests” this week, to measure the solvency of individual banks.  On the ABC News program “This Week”, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina expressed his opinion that the option of nationalizing these unhealthy banks should remain open:

GRAHAM:  Yes, this idea of nationalizing banks is not comfortable, but I think we have gotten so many toxic assets spread throughout the banking and financial community throughout the world that we’re going to have to do something that no one ever envisioned a year ago, no one likes, but, to me, banking and housing are the root cause of this problem.  And I’m very much afraid that any program to salvage the bank is going to require the government…

STEPHANOPOULOS:  So what would you do now?

GRAHAM:  I — I would not take off the idea of nationalizing the banks.

President Obama and Turbo Tim need to keep similarly open minds about the nationalization option.  They wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of the “moral hazard” argument, forcing taxpayers to eat the losses risked by investors — especially with a prominent Republican wagging his finger at them.  This situation calls for only one response by the new administration:  Blink.

The “Bad Bank” Debate

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January 29, 2009

The $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) doesn’t seem to have accomplished much in the way of relieving banks from the ownership of “troubled assets”.  In fact, nobody seems to know exactly what was done with the first $350 billion in TARP funds, and those who do know are not talking.  Meanwhile, the nation’s banks have continued to flounder.  As David Cho reported in The Washington Post on Wednesday, January 28:

The health of many banks is getting worse, not better, as the downturn makes it difficult for all kinds of consumers and businesses to pay back money they borrowed from these financial firms.  Conservative estimates put bank losses yet to be declared at $1 trillion.

The continuing need for banks to unload their toxic assets has brought attention to the idea of creating a “bad bank” to buy mortgage-backed securities and other toxic assets, thus freeing-up banks to get back into the lending business.  Bloomberg News and other sources reported on Wednesday that FDIC chair, Sheila Bair, is pushing for her agency to run such a “bad bank”.  Our new Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, has also discussed the idea of such a bank (often referred to as an “aggregator bank”) as reported on Wednesday by Reuters:

Geithner said last week the administration was reviewing the option of setting up a bad bank, but that it is “enormously complicated to get right.”

The idea of creating such a bank has drawn quite a bit of criticism.  Back on January 18, Paul Krugman (recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics) characterized this approach, without first “nationalizing” the banks on a temporary basis, as “Wall Street Voodoo”:

A better approach would be to do what the government did with zombie savings and loans at the end of the 1980s:  it seized the defunct banks, cleaning out the shareholders.  Then it transferred their bad assets to a special institution, the Resolution Trust Corporation; paid off enough of the banks’ debts to make them solvent; and sold the fixed-up banks to new owners.

The current buzz suggests, however, that policy makers aren’t willing to take either of these approaches.  Instead, they’re reportedly gravitating toward a compromise approach:  moving toxic waste from private banks’ balance sheets to a publicly owned “bad bank” or “aggregator bank” that would resemble the Resolution Trust Corporation, but without seizing the banks first.

Krugman scrutinized Sheila Bair’s earlier explanation that the aggregator bank would buy the toxic assets at “fair value”, by questioning how we define what “fair value” really means.  He concluded that this entire endeavor (as it is currently being discussed) is a bad idea for all concerned:

Unfortunately, the price of this retreat into superstition may be high.  I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect that taxpayers are about to get another raw deal — and that we’re about to get another financial rescue plan that fails to do the job.

Krugman is not alone in his skepticism concerning this plan.  As Annelena Lobb and Rob Curran  reported in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, this idea is facing some criticism from those in the financial planning business:

“I don’t see how this increases liquidity,” says Paul Sutherland, chief investment officer at FIM Group in Traverse City, Mich.  “This idea that we should burn million-dollar bills from taxpayers to take bad assets isn’t the best path.”

Billionaire financier Geroge Soros told CNBC that he disagrees with the “bad bank” strategy, explaining that the proposal “will help relieve the situation, but it will not be sufficient to turn it around”.  He then took advantage of the opportunity to criticize the execution of the first stage of the TARP bailout:

As to Paulson’s handling of the first half of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout fund known as TARP, Soros said the money was used “capriciously and haphazardly.”  He said half of it has now been wasted, and the rest will need to be used to plug holes.

Former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, anticipates that a “big chunk” of the remaining TARP funds will be used to create this aggregator bank.  Accordingly, he has suggested application of the type of standards that were absent during the first TARP phase:

Until the taxpayer-financed Bad Bank has recouped the costs of these purchases through selling the toxic assets in the open market, private-sector banks that benefit from this form of taxpayer relief must (1) refrain from issuing dividends, purchasing other companies, or paying off creditors; (2) compensate their executives, traders, or directors no more than 10 percent of what they received in 2007; (3) be reimbursed by their executives, traders, and directors 50 percent of whatever amounts they were compensated in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008 — compensation which was, after all, based on false premises and fraudulent assertions, and on balance sheets that hid the true extent of these banks’ risks and liabilities; and (4) commit at least 90 percent of their remaining capital to new bank loans.

However, Reich’s precondition:  “Until the taxpayer-financed Bad Bank has recouped the costs of these purchases through selling the toxic assets in the open market” is exactly what makes his approach unworkable.  The cost of purchasing the toxic assets from banks will never be recouped by selling them in the open market.  This point was emphasized by none other than “Doctor Doom” himself (Dr. Nouriel Roubini) during an interview with CNBC at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.  Dr. Roubini pointed out:

At which price do you buy the assets?  If you buy them at a high price, you are having a huge fiscal cost.  If you buy them at the right market price, the banks are insolvent and you have to take them over.  So I think it’s a bad idea.  It’s another form of moral hazard and putting on the taxpayers, the cost of the bailout of the financial system.

What is Dr. Roubini’s solution?  Face up to the reality that the banks are insolvent and “do what Sweden did”:  take over the banks, clean them up by selling off the bad assets and sell them back to the private sector.

Nevertheless, you can’t always count on the federal government to do the right thing.  In this case, I doubt that they will.  As David Cho pointed out at the end of his Washington Post article:

The bailout program “is a public relations nightmare,” one government official said.  He added that Obama officials are sure to face criticism for whatever course they take.