The headlines are ablaze of Geithner's plan. The Treasury Secretary is on CNBC, the cable news, even conference calls with select bloggers (I wonder if Krugman was invited?), are they twittering too? The markets react, the Dow up almost 500 pts! Astounding, magical, we have the cure....or do we?
I already wrote my own overview of the toxic asset plan and believe it fatally flawed with the same assumptions that got us into this mess, home values must drop to be in alignment with income and Americans are tapped out, the great debt fueled Ponzi scheme has collapsed.
What do economists and other economics bloggers have to say? Below are select quotes with links to their blogs.
One thing is clearly false in the way it’s being presented: administration officials keep saying that there’s no subsidy involved, that investors would share in the downside. That’s just wrong. Why? Because of the non-recourse loans, which reportedly will finance 85 percent of the asset purchases.
Let me offer a numerical example. Suppose that there’s an asset with an uncertain value: there’s an equal chance that it will be worth either 150 or 50. So the expected value is 100.
But suppose that I can buy this asset with a nonrecourse loan equal to 85 percent of the purchase price. How much would I be willing to pay for the asset?
The answer is, slightly over 130. Why? All I have to put up is 15 percent of the price — 19.5, if the asset costs 130. That’s the most I can lose. On the other hand, if the asset turns out to be worth 150, I gain 20. So it’s a good deal for me.
Notice that the government equity stake doesn’t matter — the calculation is the same whether private investors put up all or only part of the equity. It’s the loan that provides the subsidy.
And in this example it’s a large subsidy — 30 percent.
The only way to argue that the subsidy is small is to claim that there’s very little chance that assets purchased under the scheme will lose as much as 15 percent of their purchase price. Given what’s happened over the past 2 years, is that a reasonable assertion?
We think Geithner is suffering from five fundamental misconceptions about what is wrong with the economy. Here they are:
The trouble with the economy is that the banks aren't lending. The reality: The economy is in trouble because American consumers and businesses took on way too much debt and are now collapsing under the weight of it. As consumers retrench, companies that sell to them are retrenching, thus exacerbating the problem. The banks, meanwhile, are lending. They just aren't lending as much as they used to. Also the shadow banking system (securitization markets), which actually provided more funding to the economy than the banks, has collapsed.
The banks aren't lending because their balance sheets are loaded with "bad assets" that the market has temporarily mispriced. The reality: The banks aren't lending (much) because they have decided to stop making loans to people and companies who can't pay them back. And because the banks are scared that future writedowns on their old loans will lead to future losses that will wipe out their equity.
Bad assets are "bad" because the market doesn't understand how much they are really worth. The reality: The bad assets are bad because they are worth less than the banks say they are. House prices have dropped by nearly 30% nationwide. That has created something in the neighborhood of $5+ trillion of losses in residential real estate alone (off a peak market value of housing about $20+ trillion). The banks don't want to take their share of those losses because doing so will wipe them out. So they, and Geithner, are doing everything they can to pawn the losses off on the taxpayer.
Once we get the "bad assets" off bank balance sheets, the banks will start lending again. The reality: The banks will remain cautious about lending, because the housing market and economy are still deteriorating. So they'll sit there and say they are lending while waiting for the economy to bottom.
Once the banks start lending, the economy will recover. The reality: American consumers still have debt coming out of their ears, and they'll be working it off for years. House prices are still falling. Retirement savings have been crushed. Americans need to increase their savings rate from today's 5% (a vast improvement from the 0% rate of two years ago) to the 10% long-term average. Consumers don't have room to take on more debt, even if the banks are willing to give it to them.
The Treasury seems to be one big step closer to implementing the initial intentions of TARP but with the hoped for help of the private sector. In theory it all sounds great, with private sector involvement we rid the banking system of all its troubled debt, cleansing their balance sheets and positioning them to lend freely again during a time of credit constraint. In practice will be the question of to what extent will the private sector want to be a part of this because god forbid they make money what will the repercussions be and will the rules change, whether banks will want to sell to these new SIV’s and at WHAT PRICE and is this just an act of Houdini where we’re just shifting assets to the taxpayer who will have a 50% ownership rather than seeing an extinguishment or payoff of the debt which would happen without this program over time. We need the private sector and clarity in pricing, fingers crossed.
In the best-case scenario: (a) the government’s willingness to bear most of the risk encourages private investors to bid enough to get the banks to sell; (b) the economy recovers and the assets increase in price from the prices paid; (c) the investment funds pay back the Fed (which makes a small spread between the interest rate and the Fed’s low cost of money); and (d) the government gets some of the upside through its capital investments. (I think the main purpose of that government capital is to deflect the criticism that all of the upside belongs to the private sector.) In the worst-case scenario, the market stays stuck because the banks have unrealistic reserve prices. Perhaps the idea is that, in that case, the TALF will allow the government to (over)pay whatever it takes to bail out the banks.
My biggest concern about the PPIP approach to the banking system is that even if it works, what it does essentially is return us to the pre-crisis status quo—banks that are so large that they’re too politically powerful to regulate effective and too systemically important to be allowed to fail. That’s a recipe for dishonest transactions that produce short-term profits at the cost of blowups.
The central Treasury assumption, at least for public consumption, seems to be that the underlying mortgage loans will largely pay off, so that if the PPIP buys and holds, at an above-present-market price governed by auction, the government's loan to finance the purchase will not go bad.
Recovery rates on sub-prime residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) so far appear to belie this assumption. IndyMac lost $10.8 bn on a $15bn portfolio (and if you count the wipeout of equity, the total loss is about $12bn). That's an 80 percent loss. It's possible that recovery rates at other banks will be better, but how can we know? No one is examining the loan tapes.
The NYT article points out that pools of RMBS can be sold for about 30 cents on the dollar now. But banks are unwilling to sell for less than 60 cents -- either because they really think the loans will experience only a 40 percent loss rate, or because they fear that acknowledging market value will put them into insolvency. Which it might very well.
The way to find out who is right is to EXAMINE THE LOAN TAPES. An independent examination of the underlying loan tapes -- and comparison to the IndyMac portfolio -- would help determine whether these loans or derivatives based on them have any right to be marketed in an open securities market, and any serious prospect of being paid over time at rates approaching 60 cents on the dollar, rather than 30 cents or less.
Note that even a small loss of capital, relative to the purchase price, completely wipes out the interest earnings on the Treasury's loans, putting the government in a loss position and giving the banks a windfall.
If I'm right and the mortgages are largely trash, then the Geithner plan is a Rube Goldberg device for shifting inevitable losses from the banks to the Treasury, preserving the big banks and their incumbent management in all their dysfunctional glory. The cost will be continued vast over-capacity in banking, and a consequent weakening of the remaining, smaller, better- managed banks who didn't participate in the garbage-loan frenzy.
Geithner’s new plan will be closely scrutinized in capitals across the globe and will influence stakeholders’ view on the capacity, or inability, of the U.S. to address the financial crisis and to reform its institutions. The world is much in demand for competent leadership after a year of costly, improvised and inefficient bailouts. If Geithner’s plan receives a hostile welcome domestically, the ambition of the U.S. to lead again internationally, beginning at G 20, will suffer an instant blow. If the Obama Administration and Congress are unable to govern in the general interest at home, their influence abroad will thus dwindle accordingly.
So say a bank has 100 of these [legacy] $100 loan pools. And just by way of example, suppose half of them are actually worth $100 and half of them are actually worth zero, and nobody knows which are which. (These numbers are made up but the principle is sound. Nobody knows what the assets are really worth because it depends on future events, like who actually defaults on their mortgages.)
Thus, on average the pools are worth $50 each and the true value of all 100 pools is $5000.
The FDIC provides 6:1 leverage to purchase each pool, and some investor (e.g., a private equity firm) takes them up on it, bidding $84 apiece. Between the FDIC leverage and the Treasury matching funds, the private equity firm thus offers $8400 for all 100 pools but only puts in $600 of its own money.
Half of the pools wind up worthless, so the investor loses $300 total on those. But the other half wind up worth $100 each for a $16 profit. $16 times 50 pools equals $800 total profit which is split 1:1 with the Treasury. So the investor gains $400 on these winning pools. A $400 gain plus a $300 loss equals a $100 net gain, so the investor risked $600 to make $100, a tidy 16.7% return.
The bank unloaded assets worth $5000 for $8400. So the private investor gained $100, the Treasury gained $100, and the bank gained $3400. Somebody must therefore have lost $3600…
…and that would be the FDIC, who was so foolish as to offer 6:1 leverage to purchase assets with a 50% chance of being worthless. But no worries. As long as the FDIC has more expertise in valuing toxic assets than the entire private equity and banking worlds combined, there is no way they could be taken to the cleaners like this. What could possibly go wrong?