Back to Basics: The Treasury Plan Won’t Work

Years of reckless mismanagement by the self-styled masters of the financial universe and senior economic policy officials now leave us with no alternatives but major action – but the Administration’s proposals are neither the only alternative nor anywhere close to the best one.

The Treasury says we need its plan to address a liquidity crisis, with banks unable to secure the funds to lend to sound businesses that need to invest or just need to meet their payrolls. There is evidence that overnight lending to banks by other banks or other financial institutions is way down. But there’s no evidence of sound companies unable to get funds to meet operating requirements. Moreover, the Federal Reserve has opened its "discount" window and is prepared to lend funds to any financial institution and at below-market rates. The Bush Administration seems to be trying to steamroll Congress and the public: we have to conclude that there is no liquidity emergency that could conceivably justify the steps they propose.

The Treasury also says Americans have to be prepared to bankroll their plan, because more financial institutions are on the verge of insolvency, which would trigger serious problems for the economy. The insolvency or capital problem is self-evident, since these institutions created it. They borrowed hundreds of billions of dollars to buy mortgage-backed securities and to sell the default-protecting derivatives of those securities, all of which were patently speculative: they bought and sold them precisely because they produced very large streams of monthly income, and since financial markets trade off risk and return, their initial high returns signaled that they were very risky.

Now that the securities have fallen sharply in value, these institutions owe much more on the debt they took on to buy them than the securities themselves are worth. That means capital losses that come out of their equity and leave many of them technically insolvent or close to it. So there is a real capital or equity problem across much of our financial system. The Treasury plan won’t solve it, however, not at least on terms that any sensible legislator, regulator or taxpayer should consider.

The Treasury plan originally contemplated providing that capital by paying financial institutions more than their securities are currently worth – since it’s the current market value of those securities that threatens these institutions with insolvency. So that means ordinary taxpayers would have to overpay for the assets of institutions owned and operated by the richest people in America. That’s the Bush economic doctrine, but it’s not mine – is it yours?

At a minimum, if taxpayers are to overpay rich people for their risky investments, they should get a big equity stake in all the institutions in return. That would make it a version of a debt-equity swap – but if that’s what it is, we alternatively could use regulation to require debt-equity swaps between the institutions and those they actually owe to debt to. That would be cleaner, less intrusive over the long run, and create no taxpayer exposure.

Alternatively, Congress could mandate that these institutions halt dividend payments and raise more capital, since we’re in this fix because they haven’t been subject to capital/equity requirements. Anything can find a buyer at the right price, and as a result of these institutions’ mismanagement, they’ll have to trade more of their equity for the capital -- as Goldman Sachs is doing now with Warren Buffet.

That still leaves the most serious business. Congress needs to take serious steps to address the underlying cause of the crisis by stabilizing the underlying assets: provide a new loan facility for homeowners facing foreclosure or new mechanisms to renegotiate the terms of the mortgages of people facing foreclosure. It also leaves one more thing: the stark and unhappy recognition that the Treasury, the Federal Reserve and the White House have produced an unworkable, inequitable and inefficient plan that Congress need not and should not accept.


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