Despair Over Financial Policy

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New York Times

Despair Over Financial Policy

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.

Or to put it another way, Treasury has decided that what we have is nothing but a confidence problem, which it proposes to cure by creating massive moral hazard.

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.

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. To understand the issue, let me offer some background.

Start with the question: how do banks fail? A bank, broadly defined, is any institution that borrows short and lends long. Like any leveraged investor, a bank can fail if it has made bad investments - if the value of its assets falls below the value of its liabilities, bye bye bank.

But banks can also fail even if they haven't been bad investors: if, for some reason, many of those they've borrowed from (e.g., but not only, depositors) demand their money back at once, the bank can be forced to sell assets at fire sale prices, so that assets that would have been worth more than liabilities in normal conditions end up not being enough to cover the bank's debts. And this opens up the possibility of a self-fulfilling panic: people may demand their money back, not because they think the bank has made bad investments, but simply because they think other people will demand their money back.

Bank runs can be contagious; partly that's for psychological reasons, partly because banks tend to invest in similar assets, so one bank's fire sale depresses another bank's net worth.

So now we 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 for [I don't think I can finish this on a Times blog]"

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.

Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman is professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University and a regular columnist for The New York Times. Krugman was the 2008 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics. He is the author of numerous books, including The Conscience of A Liberal, The Return of Depression Economics, and his most recent, End This Depression Now!.

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