Finalmente si conoscono le grandi linee del piano di salvataggio del sistema finanziario promosso dal ministro del Tesoro statunitense Tim Geithner. La nostra analisi arriva alla conclusione che gli acquirenti sono la parte debole dell’operazione. I venditori sembrano la parte forte, ma la loro potrebbe essere una vittoria di Pirro.
• Il succo del piano, alla partenza, è semplice:
– l’Amministrazione pensa che non vi sia niente di intrinsecamente sbagliato nel sistema finanziario. Non ci sono attività «cattive», ma attività, si perdoni il termine di sapore psicanalitico, «incomprese». Segue che, se si riuscisse a convincere gli investitori che le attività «cattive» sono semplicemente sottovalutate, il sistema ripartirebbe;
– se l’Amministrazione finanzia un piano d’acquisto delle attività «incomprese», cui però partecipano anche i privati, e se i prezzi di tutte le attività, quindi non solo di quelle comprate dai partecipanti al piano, salgono, il sistema si rimette in moto;
– dove alberga allora il rischio? Se il sistema non ripartisse dopo questo piano di salvataggio, l’Amministrazione non avrebbe il capitale politico per proporne un altro.
• Si complica nella sua estrinsecazione pratica:
– abbiamo una dotazione iniziale di capitale di rischio e un debito. Il capitale di rischio proviene dal governo (150 miliardi, attraverso il piano TARP) e dai privati (30 miliardi). Il debito (820 miliardi) è fornito dal governo attraverso la FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation). Il piano ammonta a 1.000 miliardi di dollari. Il rapporto fra investimento (1.000 miliardi) e capitale (180 miliardi) è pari a quasi cinque volte. Non è una leva finanziaria modesta;
– i 1.000 miliardi acquistano le obbligazioni «tossiche» delle banche, quelle con in pancia i mutui ipotecari. Non si ha idea del loro prezzo. Potrebbero valere 30 centesimi come 80 centesimi, in ogni modo meno del prezzo facciale di un dollaro. (Se, infatti, valessero come il prezzo facciale, non avremmo la crisi…). Le banche le hanno a bilancio a un dollaro. Se le vendono a 30 centesimi debbono registrare una perdita di 70 centesimi, se le vendono a 80 centesimi debbono registrare una perdita di 20 centesimi;
– ovvio che alle banche conviene vendere a 80 centesimi, mentre all’acquirente pubblico conviene comprare a 30.
• Dagli esempi si capiscono i problemi:
– tutto va nel migliore dei modi. Le banche vendono a 80 centesimi e quindi svalutano poco il proprio attivo e di conseguenza il proprio patrimonio netto. Gli acquirenti comprano a 80 centesimi, aspettano che l’obbligazione scada, incassano un dollaro e hanno guadagnato 20 centesimi. Una volta che tutto questo funziona, scatta l’effetto imitativo nell'intero sistema, quindi torna la fiducia. «Obama è meglio di Roosevelt!»;
– tutto va male, ma ci rimettono tutti. Le banche vendono a 30 centesimi e quindi svalutano molto il proprio attivo e di conseguenza il proprio patrimonio netto. Gli acquirenti comprano a 30 centesimi, aspettano che l’obbligazione scada, ma questa non vale nulla, dunque non incassano un dollaro e hanno perso 30 centesimi. «Obama è peggio di Roosevelt, ma non è amico di Wall Street!»;
– ci rimettono gli acquirenti e alla fine i contribuenti. Le banche vendono a 80 centesimi e quindi svalutano poco il proprio attivo e di conseguenza il proprio patrimonio netto. Gli acquirenti comprano a 80 centesimi, aspettano che l’obbligazione scada, ma questa non vale nulla, dunque non incassano un dollaro e hanno perso 80 centesimi. «Non solo Obama è peggio di Roosevelt, ma aiuta Wall Street con i soldi dei contribuenti!».
Si vede bene l’importanza del piano sulla fiducia finanziaria e la posta politica in gioco. Il primo esempio porta Obama all’attacco, il secondo sulla difensiva, il terzo a perdere il proprio capitale politico.
Comunque sia, procediamo nell’analisi del piano. Intanto, non tutte le obbligazioni alla scadenza saranno rimborsate. Quindi una perdita più o meno grande per i compratori è «nelle cose». Questa perdita può però essere compensata dal guadagno sulle obbligazioni che saranno rimborsate alla scadenza. Dunque il problema vero è da un’altra parte.
Se i prezzi saranno troppo bassi, le banche, per timore delle grandi perdite da registrare, non venderanno, oppure venderanno poco. Se invece i prezzi saranno alti, venderanno soprattutto le attività peggiori. Sembra che gli acquirenti siano il contraente debole dell’operazione. I venditori sembrano essere il contraente forte, ma la loro potrebbe essere una vittoria di Pirro. Se, infatti, vendessero bene i 1.000 miliardi di obbligazioni tossiche grazie al piano Geithner, non è detto che il prezzo di tutte le altre obbligazioni tossiche che hanno nel bilancio si riprenderebbe, perché potrebbe agire il sospetto che le obbligazioni vendute con il piano Getihner abbiano registrato prezzi artificialmente alti.
Il piano non sembra risolutivo. Vedremo la reazione dei mercati.
Riportiamo la posizione dei contrari e dei favorevoli al piano.
• I CONTRARI
The Geithner plan has now been leaked in detail. It’s exactly the plan that was widely analyzed —and found wanting— a couple of weeks ago. The zombie ideas have won. The Obama administration is now completely wedded to the idea that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the financial system —that what we’re facing is the equivalent of a run on an essentially sound bank. As Tim Duy put it, there are no bad assets, only misunderstood assets. And if we get investors to understand that toxic waste is really, truly worth much more than anyone is willing to pay for it, all our problems will be solved. To this end the plan proposes to create funds in which private investors put in a small amount of their own money, and in return get large, non-recourse loans from the taxpayer, with which to buy bad —I mean misunderstood— assets. This is supposed to lead to fair prices because the funds will engage in competitive bidding. But it’s immediately obvious, if you think about it, that these funds will have skewed incentives. In effect, Treasury will be creating —deliberately!— the functional equivalent of Texas S&Ls in the 1980s: financial operations with very little capital but lots of government-guaranteed liabilities. For the private investors, this is an open invitation to play heads I win, tails the taxpayers lose. So sure, these investors will be ready to pay high prices for toxic waste. After all, the stuff might be worth something; and if it isn’t, that’s someone else’s problem. This plan will produce big gains for banks that didn’t actually need any help; it will, however, do little to reassure the public about banks that are seriously undercapitalized. And I fear that when the plan fails, as it almost surely will, the administration will have shot its bolt: it won’t be able to come back to Congress for a plan that might actually work. What an awful mess.
The plan to be announced next week involves three separate approaches. In one, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation will set up special-purpose investment partnerships and lend about 85 percent of the money that those partnerships will need to buy up troubled assets that banks want to sell. In the second, the Treasury will hire four or five investment management firms, matching the private money that each of the firms puts up on a dollar-for-dollar basis with government money. In the third piece, the Treasury plans to expand lending through the Term Asset-Backed Secure Lending Facility, a joint venture with the Federal Reserve. More approaches doesn't make a better plan. The FDIC plan involves almost no money down. The FDIC will provide a low interest non-recourse loan up to 85% of the value of the assets. With almost no skin in the game, these investors can pay a higher than market price for the toxic assets (since there is little downside risk). This amounts to a direct subsidy from the taxpayers to the banks. Oh well, I'm sure Geithner will provide details this time ...
The New York Times seems to have the inside skinny on the emerging private public partnership program. And it appears to be consistent with (low) expectations: a lot of bells and whistles to finesse the fact that the government will wind up paying well above market for crappy paper. ... If the money committed to this program is less than the book value of the assets the banks want to unload (or the banks are worried about that possibility), the banks have an incentive to try to ditch their worst dreck first. In addition, it has been said in comments more than once that the banks own some paper that is truly worthless. This program won't solve that problem. And notice the hint of skepticism from the Times regarding the Administration's supposition that the bidding will result in fair prices. Huh? First, the banks, as in normal auctions, will presumably set a reserve price equal to the value of the assets on their books. If the price does not meet the reserve (and the level of the reserve is not disclosed to the bidders), there is no sale; in this case, the bank would keep the toxic instruments. Having the banks realize a price at least equal to the value they hold it at on their books is a boundary condition. If the banks sell the assets as a lower level, it will result in a loss, which is a direct hit to equity. The whole point of this exercise is to get rid of the bad paper without further impairing the banks. So presumably, the point of a competitive process (assuming enough parties show up to produce that result at any particular auction) is to elicit a high enough price that it might reach the bank's reserve, which would be the value on the bank's books now. And notice the utter dishonesty: a competitive bidding process will protect taxpayers. Huh? A competitive bidding process will elicit a higher price which is BAD for taxpayers! ...
Why was I so quick to condemn the Geithner plan? Because it’s not new; it’s just another version of an idea that keeps coming up and keeps being refuted. It’s basically a thinly disguised version of the same plan Henry Paulson announced way back in September. [W]e 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. Now, early on in this crisis, it was possible to argue that it was mainly a panic. But at this point, that’s an indefensible position. Banks and other highly leveraged institutions collectively made a huge bet that the normal rules for house prices and sustainable levels of consumer debt no longer applied; they were wrong. Time for a Swedish solution. But Treasury is still clinging to the idea that this is just a panic attack, and that all it needs to do is calm the markets by buying up a bunch of troubled assets. Actually, that’s not quite it: the Obama administration has apparently made the judgment that there would be a public outcry if it announced a straightforward plan along these lines, so it has produced what Yves Smith calls “a lot of bells and whistles to finesse the fact that the government will wind up paying well above market...” Why am I so vehement about this? Because I’m afraid that this will be the administration’s only shot —that if the first bank plan is an abject failure, it won’t have the political capital for a second. So it’s just horrifying that Obama —and yes, the buck stops there— has decided to base his financial plan on the fantasy that a bit of financial hocus-pocus will turn the clock back to 2006.
• I FAVOREVOLI
Brad De Long
Having a large share of the downside also means having a large share of the upside, so if the downtrodden assets appreciate after the government gains control of them, the Geithner plan could make money. Q: What is the Geithner Plan? A: The Geithner Plan is a trillion-dollar operation by which the U.S. acts as the world’s largest hedge fund investor, committing its money to funds to buy up risky and distressed but probably fundamentally undervalued assets and, as patient capital, holding them either until maturity or until markets recover so that risk discounts are normal and it can sell them off –in either case at an immense profit. Q: What if markets never recover, the assets are not fundamentally undervalued, and even when held to maturity the government doesn't make back its money? A: Then we have worse things to worry about than government losses on TARP-program money –for we are then in a world in which the only things that have value are bottled water, sewing needles, and ammunition. Q: Where does the trillion dollars come from? A: $150 billion comes from the TARP in the form of equity, $820 billion from the FDIC in the form of debt, and $30 billion from the hedge fund and pension fund managers who will be hired to make the investments and run the program's operations. Q: Why is the government making hedge and pension fund managers kick in $30 billion? A: So that they have skin in the game, and so do not take excessive risks with the taxpayers’ money because their own money is on the line as well. Q: Why then should hedge and pension fund managers agree to run this? A: Because they stand to make a fortune when markets recover or when the acquired toxic assets are held to maturity: they make the full equity returns on their $30 billion invested –which is leveraged up to $1 trillion with government money. Q: Why isn’t this just a massive giveaway to yet another set of financiers? A: The private managers put in $30 billion, but the Treasury puts in $150 billion –and so has 5/6 of the equity. When the private managers make $1, the Treasury makes $5. If we were investing in a normal hedge fund, we would have to pay the managers 2% of the capital and 20% of the profits every year; the Treasury is only paying 0% of the capital value and 17% of the profits every year. Q: Why do we think that the government will get value from its hiring these hedge and pension fund managers to operate this program? A: They do get 17% of the equity return. 17% of the return on equity on a $1 trillion portfolio that is leveraged 5-1 is incentive. Q: So the Treasury is doing this to make money? A: No: making money is a sidelight. The Treasury is doing this to reduce unemployment. Q: How does having the U.S. government invest $1 trillion in the world’s largest hedge fund operations reduce unemployment? A: At the moment, those businesses that ought to be expanding and hiring cannot profitably expand and hire because the terms on which they can finance expansion are so lousy. The terms on which they can finance expansion are so lousy because existing financial asset prices are so low. Existing financial asset prices are so low because risk and information discounts have soared. Risk and information discounts have collapsed because the supply of assets is high and the tolerance of financial intermediaries for holding assets that are risky or that might have information-revelation problems are low. Q: So? A: So if we are going to boost asset prices to levels at which those firms that ought to be expanding can get finance, we are going to have to shrink the supply of risky assets that our private-sector financial intermediaries have to hold. The government buys up $1 trillion of financial assets, and lo and behold the private sector has to hold $1 trillion less of risky and information-impacted assets. Their price goes up. Supply and demand. Q: And firms that ought to be expanding can then get financing on good terms again, and so they hire, and unemployment drops? A: No. Our guess is that we would need to take $4 trillion out of the market and off the supply that private financial intermediaries must hold in order to move financial asset prices to where they need to be in order to unfreeze credit markets, and make it profitable for those businesses that should be hiring and expanding to actually hire and expand. Q: Oh. A: But all is not lost. This is not all the administration is doing. This plan consumes $150 billion of second-tranche TARP money and leverages it to take $1 trillion in risky assets off the private sector’s books. And the Federal Reserve is taking an additional $1 trillion of risky debt off the private sector’s books and replacing it with cash through its program of quantitative easing. And there is the fiscal boost program. And there is a potential second-round stimulus in September. And there is still $200 billion more left in the TARP to be used in other ways.
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