Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Martin Wolf: "Successful bank rescue still far away"

by Bill McBride on 3/25/2009 09:01:00 AM

Martin Wolf writes in the Financial Times: Successful bank rescue still far away. (ht Bierca) An except on the Geithner Toxic Plan:

[W]ill it work? That depends on what one means by “work”. This is not a true market mechanism, because the government is subsidising the risk-bearing. Prices may not prove low enough to entice buyers or high enough to satisfy sellers. Yet the scheme may improve the dire state of banks’ trading books. This cannot be a bad thing, can it? Well, yes, it can, if it gets in the way of more fundamental solutions, because almost nobody – certainly not the Treasury – thinks this scheme will end the chronic under-capitalisation of US finance.
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Why might this scheme get in the way of the necessary recapitalisation? There are two reasons: first, Congress may decide this scheme makes recapitalisation less important; second and more important, this scheme is likely to make recapitalisation by government even more unpopular.
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[I]magine what happens if, after “stress tests” of the country’s biggest banks are completed, the government concludes – surprise, surprise! – that it needs to provide more capital. How will it persuade Congress to pay up?

The danger is that this scheme will, at best, achieve something not particularly important – making past loans more liquid – at the cost of making harder something that is essential – recapitalising banks.

This matters because the government has ruled out the only way of restructuring the banks’ finances that would not cost any extra government money: debt for equity swaps, or a true bankruptcy.
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I fear, however, that the alternative – adequate public sector recapitalisation – is also going to prove impossible. Provision of public money to banks is unacceptable to an increasingly enraged public, while government ownership of recapitalised banks is unacceptable to the still influential bankers. This seems to be an impasse.
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The conclusion, alas, is depressing. Nobody can be confident that the US yet has a workable solution to its banking disaster. On the contrary, with the public enraged, Congress on the war-path, the president timid and a policy that depends on the government’s ability to pour public money into undercapitalised institutions, the US is at an impasse.
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If this is not frightening, I do not know what is.