Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner this week is supposed to provide more details on his plan to solve the insolvent bank problem. He’s in what we call Bartlett’s choice territory. This is the delimma expressed by University of Colorado physics professor Albert Bartlett regarding the world’s use of resources to produce energy.
Bartlett said you had two choices: Behave as though the supplies are infinite or behave as though they are finite. If you approach this choice as though both options are wrong, the question becomes which wrong option is worse. In this case the least wrong choice is to behave as though supplies are finite. That way if you’re wrong and supplies are infinite, you’ve just wasted some money and effort. If you behave as though supplies are infinite but they turn out to be finite, you’ve thrown yourself back to the stone age where everyone lived “off the grid.”
In a way Geithner’s got a Bartlett’s choice to make. The options he has are: Repair bank balance sheets by using taxpayer funds to backstop, or insure bank assets–or burn through bank shareholders and creditors before committing taxpayer funds to repair bank balance sheets. Either one could fail. But which one is the worst if it fails?
From our perspective, this is a rhetorical question. Using taxpayer funds before exhausting current investor funds is the worst option. If Geithner offers a plan this way and it doesn’t work, he will have unnecessarily authored a massive wealth transfer from the middle and working class to the wealthy. And in addition he will have authored huge additional public debt that will cripple America’s ability to manage its future.
Better to use investor funds first. If these funds are insufficient liquidate the bank. If investor funds are enough to repair a balance sheet, but are too little to keep the bank effective because there’s not enough capital, then use taxpayer funds. But Nationalise the bank. That way capital injections will be taxpayer paying taxpayer, not taxpayer paying creditor.
And a National bank can do something private banks are unwilling to do in a deep recession: Lend.
That’s the simple overview, with no details. But there is more than enough detail in blogdom. Read this from The Market Ticker: “AIG still hasn’t been forced to disgorge and close their CDS book, despite over $100 billion in direct support. Why not BEN (Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke)? Is it because AIG’s liability under those contracts might be several hundred billion more, and if you net them and then close the book you’d have to make good on it or default them, and the guys on the other side are your banking buddies?
That’s right – the truth is almost certainly that firms like JP Morgan, Goldman and Morgan Stanley (along with Bank America and others) are, to no small extent, the people who are long those contracts from AIG. If they’re netted and then the book is closed the fact that these contracts are worth zero would be revealed and that could cause every one of these firms to detonate at once.
But the fact of the matter is that these contracts are worthless, unless “someone” is going to pony up their face at AIG! And since AIG doesn’t have the money, and it all links back to The Fed, what it comes down to is the taxpayer doling out another half-trillion to these banks – and even then, it might not be enough.”
Or this from another section of the same website: “I write today out of concern for a conclusion that must inevitably be drawn after reading the minutes of the most recent meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) of the Federal Reserve Board (Fed) on October 8, 2007. The pertinent quote from the FOMC minutes reads as follows:
“Given existing commitments to customers and the increased resistance of investors to purchasing some securitized products, banks might need to take a large volume of assets onto their balance sheets over coming weeks, including leveraged loans, asset-backed commercial paper, and some types of mortgages. Banks’ concerns about the implications of rapid growth in their balance sheets for their capital ratios and for their liquidity, as well as the recent deterioration in various term funding markets, might well lead banks to tighten the availability of credit to households and firms. Tighter credit conditions were likely to weigh particularly on residential investment and to a lesser extent on other components of aggregate demand in coming quarters.” (emphasis added)
In light of even a cursory understanding of the Fed’s oversight responsibilities vis-à-vis banks, this statement should make one’s jaw drop. The Fed is, in effect, conceding that: a) they are fully aware that banks have managed to divert considerable liabilities off of their balance sheets; b) the size of these diversions is large enough to threaten the banks’ ability to meet their capital reserve requirements; and c) the Fed is prepared to bend the rules in order to assist the banks in ongoing commission of this fraud.”
Even those not in favor of nationalisation seem to assume major activity soon from Treasury. This from Baseline Scenario. “Will there be a clear, upfront commitment to reprivatization, with a promise that large banks will be broken up in the process? Changing the industrial structure of banking is essential for altering the political economy of the sector.”
And this from Interfluidity: “We are all tired of the lies, Mr. Geithner. By all means, let nationalization be a last resort, and do all you can to offer liquidity to private parties willing to take both the upside and downside of speculating in questionable paper. But if you keep nationalizing the downside and privatizing the upside, it will not be very long at all before the public concludes that stress tests and market prices are just a sleight-of-hand for Davos man while he picks our pockets, again. Act fairly, and you may end up nationalizing the worst few of the larger banks. Keep up the games, and we will insist that you nationalize them all. It is getting hard to believe that there is a banker in the land who has not already robbed us. Eventually we will tire of drawing fine distinctions.”
And in a revealing article from London’s Financial Times comes this: “At the heart of the internal battle inside the Treasury Department is what to do with the estimated $2 trillion of toxic and mostly mortgage-related debt that is threatening to topple the entire banking sector – the bedrock of US capitalism.
When Mr Geithner announced his plan to stabilise the financial sector last week it was received badly because it was so short on detail. The heart of the strategy – his prescription to remove the bad debt off the banks’ books – was to entice private investors to buy up the toxic assets. He gave no firm proposals, however, about how the loans would be valued and how the private sector would be co-opted.
It has now emerged that Mr Geithner was deliberately vague at his press conference because he had a change of mind and suddenly began to pursue a different course.
He decided that his original plan to use government funds to buy up the toxic assets was too expensive and exposed taxpayers to too much risk, and that using the private sector was the best option.”
This seems to get back to our initial reaction to Geithner’s roll out two weeks ago. At that time we interpreted this plan to be, in effect, an RSVP to private investors. If they didn’t take the RSVP, then the message seemed to be pretty clear: “Well, a guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do.”
Cowboy Up Mr. Geithner. Time to kick some serious rear-end.