Successful bank rescue still far away (Martin Wolf)

Interesting piece by Martin Wolf of the Financial Times.

By Martin Wolf | March 24 2009 19:24

I am becoming ever more worried. I never expected much from the Europeans or the Japanese. But I did expect the US, under a popular new president, to be more decisive than it has been. Instead, the Congress is indulging in a populist frenzy; and the administration is hoping for the best.

If anybody doubts the dangers, they need only read the latest analysis from the International Monetary Fund. It expects world output to shrink by between 0.5 per cent and 1 per cent this year and the economies of the advanced countries to shrink by between 3 and 3.5 per cent. This is unquestionably the worst global economic crisis since the 1930s.

One must judge plans for stimulating demand and rescuing banking systems against this grim background. Inevitably, the focus is on the US, epicentre of the crisis and the world’s largest economy. But here explosive hostility to the financial sector has emerged. Congress is discussing penal retrospective taxation of bonuses not just for the sinking insurance giant, AIG, but for all recipients of government money under the troubled assets relief programme (Tarp) and Andrew Cuomo, New York State attorney-general, seeks to name recipients of bonuses at assisted companies. This, of course, is an invitation to a lynching.

Yet it is clear why this is happening: the crisis has broken the American social contract: people were free to succeed and to fail, unassisted. Now, in the name of systemic risk, bail-outs have poured staggering sums into the failed institutions that brought the economy down. The congressional response is a disaster. If enacted these ideas would lead to an exodus of qualified employees from US banks, undermine willingness to expand credit, destroy confidence in deals struck with the government and threaten the rule of law. I presume legislators expect the president to save them from their folly. That such ideas can even be entertained is a clear sign of the rage that exists.

This is also the background for the “public/private partnership investment programme” announced on Monday by the US Treasury secretary, Tim Geithner. In the Treasury’s words, “using $75bn to $100bn in Tarp capital and capital from private investors, the public/private investment programme will generate $500bn in purchasing power to buy legacy assets—with the potential to expand to $1 trillion over time”. Under the scheme, the government provides virtually all the finance and bears almost all the risk, but it uses the private sector to price the assets. In return, private investors obtain rewards—perhaps generous rewards—based on their performance, via equity participation, alongside the Treasury.

I think of this as the “vulture fund relief scheme”. But will it work? That depends on what one means by “work”. This is not a true market mechanism, because the government is subsidising the risk-bearing. Prices may not prove low enough to entice buyers or high enough to satisfy sellers. Yet the scheme may improve the dire state of banks’ trading books. This cannot be a bad thing, can it? Well, yes, it can, if it gets in the way of more fundamental solutions, because almost nobody—certainly not the Treasury—thinks this scheme will end the chronic under-capitalisation of US finance. Indeed, it might make clearer how much further the assets held on longer-term banking books need to be written down.

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