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Feb 12 / Jonathan

Why Obama’s new Tarp will fail to rescue the banks

The Financial Times’ Martin Wolf.

Why Obama’s new Tarp will fail to rescue the banks

… The new plan seems to make sense if and only if the principal problem is illiquidity. Offering guarantees and buying some portion of the toxic assets, while limiting new capital injections to less than the $350bn left in the Tarp, cannot deal with the insolvency problem identified by informed observers. Indeed, any toxic asset purchase or guarantee programme must be an ineffective, inefficient and inequitable way to rescue inadequately capitalised financial institutions: ineffective, because the government must buy vast amounts of doubtful assets at excessive prices or provide over-generous guarantees, to render insolvent banks solvent; inefficient, because big capital injections or conversion of debt into equity are better ways to recapitalise banks; and inequitable, because big subsidies would go to failed institutions and private buyers of bad assets.

Why then is the administration making what appears to be a blunder? It may be that it is hoping for the best. But it also seems it has set itself the wrong question. It has not asked what needs to be done to be sure of a solution. It has asked itself, instead, what is the best it can do given three arbitrary, self-imposed constraints: no nationalisation; no losses for bondholders; and no more money from Congress. Yet why does a new administration, confronting a huge crisis, not try to change the terms of debate? This timidity is depressing. Trying to make up for this mistake by imposing pettifogging conditions on assisted institutions is more likely to compound the error than to reduce it.

Assume that the problem is insolvency and the modest market value of US commercial banks (about $400bn) derives from government support (see charts). Assume, too, that it is impossible to raise large amounts of private capital today. Then there has to be recapitalisation in one of the two ways indicated above. Both have disadvantages: government recapitalisation is a bail-out of creditors and involves temporary state administration; debt-for-equity swaps would damage bond markets, insurance companies and pension funds. But the choice is inescapable.

If Mr Geithner or Lawrence Summers, head of the national economic council, were advising the US as a foreign country, they would point this out, brutally. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, IMF managing director, said the same thing, very gently, in Malaysia last Saturday.

The correct advice remains the one the US gave the Japanese and others during the 1990s: admit reality, restructure banks and, above all, slay zombie institutions at once. It is an important, but secondary, question whether the right answer is to create new “good banks”, leaving old bad banks to perish, as my colleague, Willem Buiter, recommends, or new “bad banks”, leaving cleansed old banks to survive. I also am inclined to the former, because the culture of the old banks seems so toxic. …

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