Thursday, February 05, 2009


I'm sure many of you have heard about the latest proposal being tossed about by Obama's Wall St. Crew Economic Team: The "Bad Bank." Yeah, that's what it's called.

The "Bad Bank" will buy all the crappy assets no real investor would ever buy, so as to get all those "bad assets" off the banks books. So they can therefore relax, and find themselves with nice, positive balance sheets and start lending again.

Lending to the imaginary hordes of real investors who wouldn't touch the garbage if it was wrapped in sheets of gold leaf.

Anyway, I think this idea is moronic and wrong for a zillion reasons, but Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism does a far better job than I ever could explaining why this idea is moronic and wrong. A few highlights, though as always, I recommend reading the whole thing:
The Obama Administration is as obviously and fully hostage to the interests of the financial services industry as the Bush crowd was. We have no new thinking, no willingness to take measures that are completely defensible (in fact not doing them takes some creative positioning) like wiping out shareholders at obviously dud banks (Citi is top of the list), forcing bondholder haircuts and/or equity swaps, replacing management, writing off and/or restructuring bad loans, and deciding whether and how to reorganize and restructure the company. Instead, the banks are now getting the AIG treatment: every demand is being met, no tough questions asked, no probing of the accounts (or more important, the accounting).

Why is this a bad idea? Let's turn to a study by the IMF of 124 banking crises. Their conclusion:
Existing empirical research has shown that providing assistance to banks and their borrowers can be counterproductive, resulting in increased losses to banks, which often abuse forbearance to take unproductive risks at government expense. The typical result of forbearance is a deeper hole in the net worth of banks, crippling tax burdens to finance bank bailouts, and even more severe credit supply contraction and economic decline than would have occurred in the absence of forbearance.
In case you had any doubts, propping up dud asset values is a form of forbearance. Japan had a different way of going about it, but the philosophy was similar, and the last 15 year illustrates how well that worked.
* * *
The concept of "triage" recognizes that resources are limited, tough decision need to be made, and some are beyond any hope. But in Team Obama Newspeak, triage means everyone can be saved because resources are presumed to be unlimited:
The basic problem confronting the government is that banks hold large quantities of assets that they value on their books for much more than investors are willing to pay
Yves here. The spin is so thick I have to interject after one sentence. Note how the problem is that the investors don't want to pay enough, not that the assets are in most cases fetid? Back to the article:
Since the early days of the financial crisis, officials have struggled to unwind that knot. If the government buys the assets at prices that banks consider fair, the Treasury would take a huge loss when it ultimately sells the assets for much less. If, instead, the government insists on paying market prices, the banks may not survive their losses.
Yves here. See how saving the banks in their current form is presumed to be necessary? This is the phony policy constraint that is leading to all the distortions. The savings and loan crisis' Resolution Trust Corporation is touted as a good "bad bank" model (it's far from the only one). But guess what? It got those bad assets from banks that died. That little detail seems to be neglected in modern accounts.
* * *
As John Paulson pointed out, a lot of poor quality paper is trading. The idea that it is illiquid is a myth.

The problem is not a lack of price discovery, as the discussion above pretends, it's a lack of investor willingness or ability to take losses. And readers have said if a particular piece of paper doesn't fetch a bid, that's because its real value is not materially above zero. But per above, that's the sort of dreck that Team Obama would buy.

And what, pray tell, is the point of the guarantee? The loss exposure on a guarantee (versus a purchase) at the same nominal price is the same, although the initial cash outlay is considerably different. Ah, but if the paper is guaranteed, then your friendly bank welfare recipient can bring the junk to the Fed and get nice cash back.

So we the taxpayers are going to eat a ton of bank losses that should instead be borne first by stockholders and bondholders This program should be labeled the Pimco bailout plan, since the giant bond fund holds a lot of bank debt. That shows what a fiction Obama's populism is. It's mere posturing and empty phrases. Look at where the dough goes, and it is going first and foremost to the big money end of town.
* * *
But Team Obama is taking the cowardly approach of distributing the costs among the most disenfranchised group in the process, namely the taxpayer, when there far more obvious and logical groups to take the hits. Shareholders and bondholders bought securities KNOWING there was the possibility of loss. A lot of big financial institutions have been on the ropes for over a year. A security holding is not a marriage. When conditions change, prudent investors reassess and adjust course accordingly. If anyone is long a lot of dodgy bank paper now, they have only themselves to blame. Any why are rank and file bankers still exempt from pay cuts when the workers in another failing US industry, autos, expected to take big hits?

This is the most roundabout and probably the most costly way to not solve this problem. Another warning from the IMF paper:
All too often, central banks privilege stability over cost in the heat of the containment phase: if so, they may too liberally extend loans to an illiquid bank which is almost certain to prove insolvent anyway. Also, closure of a nonviable bank is often delayed for too long, even when there are clear signs of insolvency (Lindgren, 2003). Since bank closures face many obstacles, there is a tendency to rely instead on blanket government guarantees which, if the government’s fiscal and political position makes them credible, can work albeit at the cost of placing the burden on the budget, typically squeezing future provision of needed public services.
The most amazing bit is the government acts as if it has no leverage. Look how Paulson sent teams in to inspect the accounts of Fannie and Freddie and put them into conservatorship. The reason it is obvious that this program is a crock is that it has been cooked up in the complete and utter absence of any serious due diligence on the toxic holdings of the big banks.
Check out the whole piece.

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Blogger DED said...

A good read, Mike. Thanks for sharing.

5:14 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

You're welcome. Doesn't look like anyone else enjoyed it though!

6:38 AM  

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