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Monday, September 22, 2008

E pluribus hokum or When the gamblers bail out the casino - Spengler

Why should American taxpayers give US Treasury Secretary "Hank" Paulson a blank check to bail out the shareholders of busted banks? Why should the Treasury turn itself into a toxic waste dump for their bad loans? Why not let other banks join the unlamented Brothers Lehman in bankruptcy court, and start a new bank with taxpayers' money? Or have the Treasury pay interest on delinquent mortgages, and make them whole? Even better, why not let the Chinese, or the Saudis or other foreign investors take control of failed American banks? They've got the money, and they gladly would pay a premium for an inside seat at the American table.

None of the above will occur. America will give between US$700-$800 billion to the Treasury to buy any bank assets it wants, on any terms, with no possible legal recourse. It is an invitation to abuse of power unparalleled in American history, in which ill-paid civil servants will set prices on the portfolios of the banking system with no oversight and no threat of legal penalty.


Contrary to what the Bush administration says, it is not the case that banks' troubled mortgage assets cannot be sold in the private market. Those are the so-called "Level III" assets that banks say they cannot value. But that is only a dodge that the banks use to postpone taking losses. There is a ready bid for these assets from hedge funds, in multi-hundred-billion-dollar size. The trouble is that the market bid is 25% to 30% below the prices that banks carry these assets on their books. Traders at Wall Street boutiques who specialize in distressed securities say that US regional banks regularly make discreet offers to sell private mortgage-backed securities (not guaranteed by a federal agency) at prices, for example, of 75 to 80 cents on the dollar. Hedge funds bid, for example, 55 to 60 cents in return. On rare occasions, the bank seller and the hedge fund buyer will meet in the middle, although very few transactions occur.

Although many banks are desperate to sell, they cannot accept the offered price without taking losses over the threshold of mortality, for write-downs of this magnitude would destroy their shareholders' capital. Investment banks typically hold about $30 of securities for every $1 of capital, so a 3% write-down would leave them insolvent. Lehman Brothers classified 14% of its assets as Level III at the end of the first quarter; Goldman Sachs was at 13%. Why is Lehman bankrupt, and Goldman Sachs still in business? If Secretary Paulson, the former head of Goldman Sachs, had not proposed a general bailout last week, we might already have had the answer to that question.


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