Buddy, can you spare $700 billion? It’s going to Wall Street bankers who are a bit short of a few trillion. Apparently they’ve lent too much to people who might find it difficult to pay it all back. The taxpayer can have some of those loans in return.
We are waiting for details of the package from the USA. It is unlikely the politicians will veto all of it. A deal will probably be done, offering more control over the spending than the first proposals, and offering some help to the hard pressed borrowers to show it is for Main Street as well as for Wall Street. The President and his colleagues are trying to argue that a freefall Wall Street will be bad for everyone. They need to show as well the Treasury support will not leach into Wall Street bonuses and shareholder dividends. If there are any profits to be made, the taxpayer deserves them for running the risks. What is it about modern governments that they have the nationalising instinct?
It was always strange that the Treasury settled on a whopping $700 billion as the right sum. It is small beer beside the trillions of credit in the balance sheets of the highly geared banks and shadow banks. It is a very large sum even by US government standards for a single spending programme. If it is all to be spent before the year end and the change of Presidency it will be a quick fire purchase of many instruments that will be but poorly understood and hastily valued by the taxpayers representatives. It might just work. It might go wrong in either direction, offering too little to stabilise all the financial institutions, or offering too much for the assets bought for the taxpayers comfort.
The valuation problem is not the only one. How do you stop leakage of state cash into bonuses and dividends? How do you define which assets you are prepared to buy so the auction process can work smoothly and fairly? How do you do due diligence on the underlying loans in the debt packages? How do you allow foreign institutions to participate without allowing them to transfer dodgy debts from other places? If you limit it to US institutions, how does that stabilise Wall Street with all its foreign banks?
I am not suggesting there are easy answers, or that an armchair commentator 3000 miles away from the action has insights the real players do not have. We all want the US to get it right, and hope that this large sum if approved will make a difference. It is because it so important that the politicians in Washington are right to want to see the small print and right to want to know if there is an alternative. Meanwhile the rest of us have to watch the gripping drama played out in the markets and on the Hill.
Are there other options, or is the President right to say there is no alternative? Of course there are other options. Some say it would have been better to set up a well governed body to value and buy debt, and started it off with a more modest budget. They could see how well it worked by taking it more slowly.
I think it might be better to develop the Administration’s role as lender of last resort, taking collateral without having to buy the instruments. The system already has the power to lend where needed. It would be less contentious with an American public who rightly do not wish to see hard borrowed taxpayer dollars spent on the Wall Street rich. In the UK when the government foolishly decided to nationalise Northern Rock they ignored the better alternative of lending the Rock the cash it needed whilst taking charge of all the good assets they could secure against the lending. That would have limited taxpayer risk and concentrated the minds of management on the need to find a more permanent solution. Such a policy can be buttressed by a better scheme of deposit protection to reassure small savers.
Maybe changing accounting rules from mark to market (part of the problem when there is no effective market in many of these instruments) to valuation based on estimates of repayments in due course would be an important part of a solution. Some say this would be quite wrong, as only the true doctrine of mark to market gives you reliable accounts. I would normally take that view myself, but what can we make of accounts based on market values that reflect the absence of any kind of buying owing to the squeeze? The banks cannot sell all this debt at the very low market prices being proposed for the accounts anyway – there is no market price if they are to sell lots more of it. Maybe we need an interim solution of a value based on sensible, even on pessimistic estimates of how much of the lending will be repaid over the next five or so years, which would be higher than mark to market in current conditions for some of this debt.
The whole crisis has been made more dramatic by the intervention of the electoral politics of the US Presidential contest. John Mc Cain, struggling behind Obama in recent polls, sought to turn the tables on his rival by demanding a bi partisan approach to the crisis. It looked like one of those unsettling moves Mc Cain has enlivened his campaign with. It broke the rhythm of the Obama machine and left Obama looking more defensive. However, it has two big weaknesses. It has reminded people of Mc Cain’s connections with the Bush Administration. If it results in Mc Cain support for a large Wall Street package it will upset much of Middle America who do like the idea of so much cash going to bankers. Mc Cain would not be wise to duck the Presidential debate. Obama’s best jibe when it was suggested the debate would be cancelled was that a President had to be able to handle more than one thing at a time.
Whilst the politicians for once raise good questions and seek to negotiate a settlement in response to the Treasury Secretary’s challenge, banks on both sides of the Atlantic have become even more safety conscious and interbank lending rates have risen. Interest rates charged to lenders are on the rise, whatever the Bank of England and the Fed may want. Banks are desperate to make more profit to increase their reserves, and keen to cut their lending. They will soon become even more unpopular, as this communicates to the real economy as less available for company and individual borrowing at a higher price. That is why this Credit crunch is also deflationary and recessionary.
Banks need massive capital injections. To persuade investors they need to be more profitable, and to bolster their capital they need to make more profit. They have reported big profits in recent years, but we now know this was at the expense of their balance sheets. There are going to be further big write offs from balance sheets, as banks acknowledge that what they thought was very profitable business was loss making business because not all the loans will be repaid.
If the US package brings relief, and markets rise, that will limit the downturn. It’s not going to stop it. Enough damage has been done already. Even after $700 billion of purchases of assets banks still need to raise lots of capital, and need to retrench on the lending.
Meanwhile the German Finance Minister thinks this would be a good time to demand that banks hold even more capital relative to their loans than they have been asked to do by regulators so far. This is not a case of bolting the stable door after the horse has gone. It is a case of shooting the horses that have bolted after they have been recaptured. Or changing the metaphor, this is the ultimate scorched earth approach, that would turn a downturn into a depression. I assume the Fed and the Bank of England are not up for that. His numerical suggestion of capital required would greatly increase the amount of money banks needed to raise simply to sustain their existing loan base. It is not helpful to hear EU politicians crying “We told you so” when EU banks have been under pressure just as American ones have been. Northern Rock, after all, was a UK/EU regulated bank lending money to people in the UK that had nothing whatsoever to do with US sub prime or the US regulators.
This is a global problem. It needs global solutions. Failing international agreement, it needs intelligent central banking on both sides of the Atlantic. Intelligent central banking entails making difficult day to day judgements about how much liquidity to supply, careful behind the scenes work to help the private sector repair ailing banks, and sensible use of the lender of last resort power. There was never just 5 days to save the world banking system, and never a single policy that would sort out all the problems. If the US is to go the route of buying up the debts they need to answer the detailed questions about how it would work. It might be better to stick to doing what Central Banks should do – regulating banks and organising orderly money markets. They are going to have to do that anyway, and not just for a few days. Buying up the debts of course will give a boost, that will last until the money runs out. Only if it is enough to restore banks confidence in banks will it have worked as intended. Maybe we are going to find out.