Sunday, February 8, 2009

Bail Out or Wimp Out?

The Obama administration is going to have to make a decision soon…is it going to try and commit to a program that will actually do something for banking and other financial institutions or is it going to extend the waffling on this issue that began last fall?

People in the administration say that something has to be done…and it has to be done fast…but, there is this problem about buying assets from these troubled institutions…we don’t know what price we should pay for them.

All I can advise them in terms of setting prices is…do the very best you can…at this moment in time! Yes, there is great uncertainty as to the prices of many or most of these assets…but, that is not the issue at this stage of the game.

Beginning in December 2007, things changed in Washington, D. C. The Federal Reserve System did something that had never been done before. It innovated! It created the Term Auction Facility; it introduced a dollar swap facility with other central banks around the world; as well as the Primary Dealer credit facility. Since that time the Fed has developed several other new ways to put dollars into the banking system.

In March 2008, the Fed and the Treasury engineered the Bear Stearns takeover and in September 2008 the world changed even more as Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail and AIG was essentially nationalized. The American model of financial markets and institutions would never be the same again.

And, things continued on from there with the $700 billion bailout bill passed by Congress and the efforts of Treasury Secretary Paulson and Fed Chairman Bernanke to sooth markets and get credit flowing once again.

The Obama administration has taken over from Bush43 and argued that with the crisis at hand…something must be done to avoid a “catastrophe”…in the words of President Obama himself.

My point is…it is not time to waffle on trying to save the banking and financial system from the bad assets they have on the books.

The government IS involved…up to its neck and beyond! The Obama stimulus package is an attempt to stimulate the economy. But, in my estimation, it will not do a lot. If the current size of the package is, being generous, around $850 billion and the multiplier of this spending is between 0.4 and 0.6 (see my post of January 26, 2009, then the effect on the economy will be between $340 billion and $510 billion of additional output. Not a great “bang-for-the-buck”, but, we are told, it is the effort that is so important at this particular moment.

There will be more to come…promises the Obama administration. Additional programs need to follow this package. More dollars need to be thrown at the problem.

Still, there is the problem of bad assets. What is going to be done with all the toxic waste that is now held by our financial institutions?

Well, since there is way too much debt in the financial system, there could be a massive write down of assets…the banks and other financial institutions absorbing the hair cut. (See my post of February 4, 2009, At this stage of the effort there does not seem to be a lot of interest in this approach so we probably should put this idea on the back burner for another time.

Thus, if something has to be done…along with the $850 billion stimulus plan…let the Federal Government buy these toxic assets from the banks and other financial institutions. Many estimates place the difference between what these institutions value the assets on their books and the price that the Federal Government would buy them at is a minimum of $2.0 trillion. If the banks and other financial institutions took this kind of a hit to their balance sheets…many of the organizations would be bankrupt…kaput…out-of-business.

My question to this is…aren’t they bankrupt…kaput…out-of-business…already?

The issue is that many of these institutions are large…would require a lot of management talent to run them…and what about the shareholders? Well, the shareholders have no rights…because there is no equity left in these institutions. Let us recognize this and get on with it. Many of these institutions are large…which means there is a major need for management talent. But…why should the managements that got these institutions into the positions they now are in be expected to get them straightened out and healthy again?

This reminds me of many of the “dog-and-pony shows” that I observed during the S & L crisis twenty-some years ago. In these “shows” the existing management would get up in front of potential investors and say…”Yes, we have run this bank for the past 20-some years…and, yes, we basically bankrupted the band…but…WE HAVE LEARNED our lessons! Give us $100.0 million so that we can turn this bank around and make it into something you will be proud of!”

In most cases, the potential investors dug into their pockets and forked over the $100.0 million. Few, if any, of the “born again” managements were successful in turning their institutions around. Oh, well…live and learn!

Unfortunately, the same thing seems to be in play here. The managements that got us here claim that they can be the managements that get us back to health again. What did P. T. Barnum say?

A number of these banks and other financial institutions appear to be insolvent…their managements are hanging on by their finger nails…the credit system is not functioning as it might…and the government is dawdling.

Buy the assets. Remove the shareholders…they had their turn to oversee these institutions. Take over these banks…and see that the banks get new top managements. If you are going to do it…then, do it! Cut out the half-fast programs. Postponing government action only creates more uncertainty, and, as we know too well, the market hates uncertainty.

The Obama campaign called for change in Washington, D. C. It said an Obama administration would change things…action would be taken. Well, action needs to be taken. Obama was right the other evening when he said that his administration will be remembered for stopping the economic downturn and getting things moving upwards again…or not. Not much else is going to matter. And, whether or not you agree with the policies and programs that are being presented…and to a large extent I don’t…I do agree with the general feeling that if you are going to fail…or succeed…you will have to do it in a very committed way. Half-measures are bound to fail…if for no other reason than they won’t raise the confidence of the nation.

So, Mr. Obama, come out with a strong plan for taking care of these toxic assets and come out with a strong plan for removing the chaff from the banking system. Half-way measures are not going to resolve the issue because there will still need to be further adjustments sometime down the road. Be strong! All you can do is what you think is best for the country!

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