I am not sure who first coined the phrase "House of Cards" to describe the financial crisis that we are facing today. There was a brief piece on "60 Minutes" called House of Cards: The Mortgage Mess and a really good book by William Cohan titled "House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street". We are left to deal with this ponzi scheme created by financial conglomerates, mortgage industry and to a lesser extent borrowers who lied about their incomes. But the ways we are dealing with this crisis, particularly Treasury Secretary Geithner's Private-Public Investment Program (PPIP), we are just reshuffling the "House of Cards". We are just re-spreading the risk of the "toxic assets" created by the financial conglomerates to different players including us (again).
I am far from an expert on environmental remediation but something tells me when dealing with toxic substances you try to remove them from the contaminated area and if you can't remove the contamination then you try to contain the toxic substance in a certain area and seal it. One thing you don't do is spread the toxic substance because obviously you contaminate a larger area. PPIP has the potential of taking "toxic assets" off the balance sheets of the financial conglomerates and spreading it through out other parts of our financial system and possibly back to their original source.
Treasury's plan, with the help of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), is to encourage private investors such as hedge funds, private equity funds and money management companies to purchase these "toxic assets" from the financial conglomerates. This would "cleanse" the balance sheets of the financial conglomerates of the "toxic assets" and they can start lending again and everything will be hunky dory. But nothing is that easy. There are big questions about the price of these "toxic assets" and how much more taxpayer money will the financial conglomerates need regardless of whether the PPIP succeeds or fails.
What if PPIP was succesful in cleansing the balance sheets of the financial conglomerates - where would "toxic assets" go? Sheila Tendy, former counsel to the New York State Banking Department, asks this very important question: Where is the final resting place for these "toxic assets"?
Then we get to the gnarly part. Once they auction off the loans, who will be the ultimate owners? Where is the final resting place of a toxic asset? We know that investment funds have been formed to take advantage of this opportunity. The securities will get sold at auction to, for example, institutional investors and some of the large public pension funds. Stay with me. The ultimate investors in those funds are individuals. Me and you - the folks from Main Street. The wheel has come full circle.
Full circle or re-spreading the risk or reshuffling the "House of Cards". But wait, it gets better. Currently, there are no rules from prohibiting financial conglomerates from purchasing these "toxic assets" from the PPIP. They can easily take an equity interest or some other form of investment or form a special entity to buy "toxic assets" that are in the PPIP. Double dealing or double dipping - hey this is Wall Street. Why expect anything better? The frustrating thing is that Treasury Department is not doing anything to stop this. How does this effect us, the taxpayer:
Along the same lines, while banks can't purchase their own assets, under the Treasury program there is no ban on the purchase or sale of securities and loans by financial institutions to one another. The average person likely doesn't realize that banks will be able to sell the loans to each other - which means that toxic loans could wind up back on the books of the same financial institutions but with different parentage. This approach won't rid the financial system of toxic assets. It will merely make the government and taxpayers liable for losses.
We,the taxpayer, are liable for the losses. Now, this is on just one side of how we are getting screwed. How about another side:
We are using taxpayer funds to bail out banks, we are using taxpayer funds to dispose of assets that destroyed our economy, wealth and retirement savings. Then we will sell the same toxic assets back to Main Street as investments to rehabilitate our retirement savings. This concept fails the same as the theory that laundering money makes it clean. It is still the same dirty money, just in different hands.
It is just reshuffling of the "toxic assets" but we are getting screwed in so many ways. There is nothing in the PPIP from preventing these private investors from spreading the risk back to us, in fact, many pension funds are considering investing in PPIP. In the end, we, the taxpayer and retail investor (or pensioner), may never escape from these "toxic assets" and just because the deck of cards gets reshuffled doesn't mean that these "toxic assets" are any less toxic.
These loans originated in banks, got sold to the secondary market, were chopped up eight ways to Sunday, wound up in pension and other types of investment funds all over the world -- and then crashed the market. Today, they are performing worse than before, but will get repackaged and sold again. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on you and me.
Sheila Tendy correctly assumes that we, the taxpayer and retail investor, may unwittingly end up owning these toxic assets again and provide the corporate subsidies/welfare to those who sell them back to us. But, why be subtly about how the deck is being reshuffled? Let's make it sound attractive to taxpayers and that is it a good thing to be involved in so many other ways in this bailout. Guess what? Treasury thinks it is a great idea for taxpayers to have even more risk exposure to these "toxic assets": U.S. May Enlist Small Investors in Bank Bailout.
As part of its sweeping plan to purge banks of troublesome assets, the Obama administration is encouraging several large investment companies to create the financial-crisis equivalent of war bonds: bailout funds.
That is right, mutual funds for retail investors, us, to take more risks with "toxic assets". This brilliant idea is not based on any good investment principle. It is based on politics and an opportunity for certain money manages such as BlackRock and PIMCO to make more money off of us.
“This is an opportunity to forge an alliance between Main Street, Wall Street and K Street,” said Steven A. Baffico, an executive at BlackRock, referring to the Washington address of many lobbying firms. BlackRock, a giant money management firm, is playing a central role in the government’s efforts and is considering creating a bailout fund. “It’s giving the guy on Main Street an equal seat at the table next to the big guys,” he said.
Alliance my ass, we ("the guy on Main Street") have so much money in this game already and no one is protecting our downside risk. In fact, brilliant ideas like this only increase the risk even more to potential retail investors-taxpayers. Now, if you are comfortable with assuming a lot of risk then doubling down and investing in one of these mutual funds may be attractive. This retail mutual fund idea seems like another way for the financial oligarchy to continue to spread the risk of these "toxic assets" even further and at the same time providing a huge profit opportunity for money managers (part of the financial oligarchy) in the form of fees charged to retail investors-taxpayers (us).
The PPIP and all the potential schemes that it may spawn from it indicates that we are not serious about containing these "toxic assets". The objective is to preserve and protect the financial oligarchy. If we were serious about dealing with the problem of these "toxic assets" we would be finding ways of containing the problem - limiting its effects on the rest of the economy - confining it, at least, to the balance sheets of insolvent banks. Treasury and financial oligarchy will reshuffle the deck of cards but unfortunately this deck of cards is loaded and we will end up on the short end of the hand that is dealt.