It would be best if this provision were expunged, but failing that, the Treasury should articulate what scenario it is worried about and any shield against legal intervention should be made as narrow as possible.
Now to the substance. The Treasury has been using the formula that it will buy assets at "fair market prices". As we have noted, there is simply huge amounts of cash ready to bottom fish in housing-related assets (we saw an estimate of $400 billion a couple of months ago). The issue is not lack of willing buyers; it's that the prospective sellers are not willing to accept prices that reflect the weak and deteriorating prospects for housing. Meredith Whitney, the Oppenheimer bank analyst who has made the most accurate earnings and writedown calls of her peer group, has noted how the housing market price decline assumptions used by major banks fall short of where the market is likely to bottom, given traditional price to income ratios and expectations reflected in housing futures prices.
In addition to the factors that Whitney (and others) have cited, the duration of the 1988-1992 US housing bear market and major financial crises suggests that that a peak-to-trough decline of 35-40% is realistic (obviously, this average masks substantial variation across markets and housing types). We are thus only a bit more than halfway through, as measured by the fall in prices.
Yet as we discussed, the plan makes no sense unless the Orwellian "fair market prices" means "above market prices." The point is not to free up illiquid assets. Illiquid assets (private equity, even the now derided CDOs were never intended to be traded, but pose no problem if they do not need to be marked at a large loss and/or the institution is not at risk of a run). Confirmation of our view came from a reader by e-mail:
I worked at [Wall Street firm you've heard of], but now I handle financial services for [a Congressman], and I was on the conference call that Paulson, Bernanke and the House Democratic Leadership held for all the members yesterday afternoon. It's supposed to be members only, but there's no way to enforce that if it's a conference call, and you may have already heard from other staff who were listening in.
Anyway, I wanted to let you know that, behind closed doors, Paulson describes the plan differently. He explicitly says that it will buy assets at above market prices (although he still claims that they are undervalued) because the holders won't sell at market prices. Anna Eshoo pressed him on how the government can compel the holders to sell, and he basically dodged the question. I think that's because he didn't want to admit that the government would just keep offering more and more.
I don't think that our leadership has been very good during this negotiation (or really, during any showdowns with this administration) at forcing the administration to own their position. If Paulson wants this plan, then he needs to sell it to the public, and if he sells a different plan to the public (the nonsense buying-at-market-price plan) then we should pass that. I'd rather see the government act as a market maker for the assets to get them transferred over to private equity firms and sovereign wealth funds and other willing holders. And if we need to recapitalize these companies, it seems like the cheapest way for the taxpayer is to go in and buy up the distressed debt and then convert that to equity.
So unlike the Resolution Trust Corporation, which took on dodgy assets which had fallen into the FDIC's lap due to the failure of thrifts, and the Home Owners' Loan Corporation, which was established in 1934 after the housing market had bottomed, this program is going to swing into action with the clear but not honestly disclosed intent of buying assets at above market prices when future markets and the analysts with the best track records on forecasting this decline (you can add Robert Shiller, CR at Calculated Risk, and Nouriel Roubini to the list) believe it has considerably further to fall.
As we said earlier, this is a covert, not particularly well designed, inefficient, and unduly costly recapitalization of the banking system. Why?
Losses on the paper acquired are guaranteed. This is not a bug but a feature. The whole point of this exercise is an equity infusion to banks. The failure to be honest about it upfront will lead to a taxpayer backlash (or will lead to the production of phony financial statements for the rescue entity, which will lead to revolt by our friendly foreign funding sources).
Taxpayers have no upside participation.
There is no regulatory reform as part of the package. This would seem to be a minimum requirement for a donation of this magnitude.
There is no admission that deleveraging is inevitable. This plan seems to be a desperate effort to keep bad debt from being written down. Yet the sorry fact is that a lot of these assets simply will not be repaid. There appears to be no intention to do triage. The financial services industry, on the back of an explosive growth in debt, has reached an unsustainable size. The industry will have to shrink. Yet the Administration does not address this issue; indeed, it appears it intends to forestall the inevitable. Regulators need to decide who will make it, who won't, and figure out what to do with damaged institutions. Instead, the reaction is ad hoc. The stunner was the contemplation of a possible merger between Morgan Stanley and Wachovia. As far as I can tell, the only thing the two firms had in common was coming into crisis on roughly the same timetable. For all I know, their IT systems are not compatible (many an otherwise promising bank merger has been scuttled over IT integration issues).
This really is little more than a scam to make the taxpayers provide the money to cover the losses for all the bad debt issued by the financial industry. What the Democrats have to do is refuse to get on board and put forward their own legislation that actually addresses the problem, send that to Bush and dare the bastard to veto it. Hang this around Bush's neck and stop letting the High Broderists shame the Dems into backing down. Barney Frank and Hillary are showing them how it's done.
Yes, Harry & Nancy, it IS class warfare, there is no "bipartisan" option, and you have a world historic moment in which to redefine both your party and your nation for the better.
Do you stand with Hoover or with FDR?