The US Treasury’s plan to rescue its banks falls flat
Nobel-Prize Winning economist Paul Krugman weighs in on the Geithner plan to save the US banks:
Start with the question: how do banks fail? A bank, broadly defined, is any institution that borrows short and lends long. Like any leveraged investor, a bank can fail if it has made bad investments — if the value of its assets falls below the value of its liabilities, bye bye bank.
But banks can also fail even if they haven’t been bad investors: if, for some reason, many of those they’ve borrowed from (e.g., but not only, depositors) demand their money back at once, the bank can be forced to sell assets at fire sale prices, so that assets that would have been worth more than liabilities in normal conditions end up not being enough to cover the bank’s debts. And this opens up the possibility of a self-fulfilling panic: people may demand their money back, not because they think the bank has made bad investments, but simply because they think other people will demand their money back.
Bank runs can be contagious; partly that’s for psychological reasons, partly because banks tend to invest in similar assets, so one bank’s fire sale depresses another bank’s net worth.
So now we have a bank crisis. Is it the result of fundamentally bad investment, or is it because of a self-fulfilling panic?
If you think it’s just a panic, then the government can pull a magic trick: by stepping in to buy the assets banks are selling, it can make banks look solvent again, and end the run. Yippee! And sometimes that really does work.
But if you think that the banks really, really have made lousy investments, this won’t work at all; it will simply be a waste of taxpayer money. To keep the banks operating, you need to provide a real backstop — you need to guarantee their debts, and seize ownership of those banks that don’t have enough assets to cover their debts; that’s the Swedish solution, it’s what we eventually did with our own S&Ls.
Here’s the original news report on the Treasury’s plan.
It seems to me the Obama administration for some reason is dragging their feet on the issue. Why isn’t nationalisation on the cards? Nationalisation isn’t simply owning a huge majority stake in a corporation. AIG is effectively nationalised since the US Treasury owns 80% of its assets, but that hasn’t stopped the other 20% from paying out bonuses which have outraged the American public.
Update 23rd Mar: Krugman has more to say today in an op-ed:
Let’s talk for a moment about the economics of the situation.
Right now, our economy is being dragged down by our dysfunctional financial system, which has been crippled by huge losses on mortgage-backed securities and other assets.
As economic historians can tell you, this is an old story, not that different from dozens of similar crises over the centuries. And there’s a time-honored procedure for dealing with the aftermath of widespread financial failure. It goes like this: the government secures confidence in the system by guaranteeing many (though not necessarily all) bank debts. At the same time, it takes temporary control of truly insolvent banks, in order to clean up their books.
That’s what Sweden did in the early 1990s. It’s also what we ourselves did after the savings and loan debacle of the Reagan years. And there’s no reason we can’t do the same thing now.
But the Obama administration, like the Bush administration, apparently wants an easier way out. The common element to the Paulson and Geithner plans is the insistence that the bad assets on banks’ books are really worth much, much more than anyone is currently willing to pay for them. In fact, their true value is so high that if they were properly priced, banks wouldn’t be in trouble.
And so the plan is to use taxpayer funds to drive the prices of bad assets up to “fair” levels. Mr. Paulson proposed having the government buy the assets directly. Mr. Geithner instead proposes a complicated scheme in which the government lends money to private investors, who then use the money to buy the stuff. The idea, says Mr. Obama’s top economic adviser, is to use “the expertise of the market” to set the value of toxic assets.
But the Geithner scheme would offer a one-way bet: if asset values go up, the investors profit, but if they go down, the investors can walk away from their debt. So this isn’t really about letting markets work. It’s just an indirect, disguised way to subsidize purchases of bad assets.