Thursday, June 4, 2009

P-PIP, R. I. P.?

Shall we say, Rest In Peace to the P-PIP? Considered from its beginning as an ill-conceived program of the Treasury Department, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation has delayed a test auction for the placement of toxic assets which seems to unofficially declare P-PIP DOA. The sooner this effort is totally put to bed the better off we will all be.

P-PIP was always conceived as a program to deal with the illiquidity of bank loans and securities. The difficulty with this is that the real problem was one of solvency. That is, the problem was not about the sale-ability of the loans or assets. The problem was that the banks would need to take such a large write-down of asset values if the solvency of the loans and securities were truly accounted for that the banks, themselves, would face the threat of insolvency.

The P-PIP was an attempt to limit the write-down in asset values so that the banks would not have to directly face the insolvency issue. The Federal Government would use tax-payer dollars to provide the floor for the write-downs. This would avoid, in the minds of government officials, an alternative to “nationalization” of the banks.

The environment has changed. Now that emotions have settled down a little bit, banks (and regulators) are dealing with the loan and securities problems a little more calmly. They are attempting to “work things out” and not “run for the doors.” The ability of banks to raise more capital has also contributed to this new, calmer atmosphere.

In a credit bubble, like the one created by the Federal Reserve earlier this decade, the economic system becomes more and more fragile as institutions seek to achieve adequate returns by manipulating their financial structure. As spreads narrow, management efforts to earn competitive returns focus more and more on financial engineering such as taking on more and more risky assets, and, financing these assets with more and more leverage and by shorter and shorter term liabilities.

The real crisis occurs when the bubble pops and everyone runs for the door at the same time. The Federal Reserve created the incentives that resulted in the financial engineering and since the engineered structures, at some point, become unsustainable the following collapse becomes systemic!

Financial innovation and the creation of derivatives and other financial instruments over the past forty years or so has made the financial markets more efficient--except when everyone tries to leave the game at the same time. The real problem is that financial innovation cannot make up for bad government policy, especially if the central bank is not independent of the government of a country.

When the bubble bursts there is at first fear, as everyone realizes that they are highly exposed. Then, things settle down a bit, but still there is a high level of emotion as people look for short-cuts to get out of their positions. Then people begin to look at their portfolios more realistically and start to work through the problems they identify.

The one real crucial element in moving to this last position is fully understanding and accepting how bad the problems are. Having worked in three bank turnarounds I understand how important it is for the managements of these organizations to face their situation realistically. One can only work one’s way out of a difficult situation if one is completely honest about what needs to be done.

It appears that in the last month or so, more bank managements have moved toward a realistic approach to working out their asset problems. Things are not rosy yet, but things have calmed sufficiently so that banks have raised additional capital where they can and they have weighed the trade-off between selling assets into a P-PIP like program and decided that they are better off relying on their own efforts than those of the government. A good choice in my mind!

There are still going to be bank failures. In fact the number of bank failures projected for this year has ranged from 100 to 1,000. In order to help work through these failures, the FDIC has presented a program to deal with the troubled assets of failed banks that is modeled upon the Resolution Trust Corporation. This program will provide debt guarantees to organizations issuing debt used to buy the troubled assets of failed banks. This seems like a more legitimate way to work with private interests in settling the affairs of banks that have already gone into receivership.

Good riddance to the P-PIP if, in fact, the idea of the P-PIP is expiring. We need to move on and we need to move on where ever possible without the government playing an excessive role in the solution. The problems are not over, but the problems of financial institutions need to be handled by the financial institutions themselves. But, if everyone is not running to the door at the same time the financial system should be able to work through their difficulties.

In no way does this mean that things will be easy. Information released yesterday indicates that bankruptcies, both personal and commercial, continue to increase. Personal bankruptcies in May ran in excess of 6,000 per day, up about 150 per day over April, and commercial bankruptcies rose to 376 per day, up about 125 per day over April. Continuing at this pace, bankruptcy filings could reach 1.5 million this year. And, the full impact of the collapse of the auto industry is still to be felt.

P-PIP may be going away, but the financial crisis has not yet expired. The good news is that financial institutions are now going about their business in a more orderly manner. The bad news is that the bad news with respect to financial institutions is not going to go away.

Furthermore, the bad news is that working through these problems is going to take a long time. The good news is—that they can be worked through.

No comments: