Solvency vs. Liquidity

| Sat Sep. 20, 2008 10:27 AM PDT

SOLVENCY vs. LIQUIDITY....Paul Krugman says he's uneasy about the proposed Wall Street bailout because it seems to be based on the mistaken idea that all we have is a liquidity problem. Atrios amplifies:

Again, the problem is that lots of bad loans were made, lots of people made highly leveraged investments in those bad loans, and still more people bet on those loans by insuring them. The loans are bad. The mortgages are not going to be repaid in full. Housing prices are not going to magically shoot up 50% over the next 6 months. People gambled and lost and now the Democrats are racing to bail them all out.

I'll make the standard disclaimer that there's no way for an ordinary layman to have enough information to truly judge what's going on behind all those closed doors in Washington. And I'll add further that as laymen go, I'm as ordinary as you can get. Nonetheless.

It's true that the Bernanke/Paulson bailout is aimed at illiquid debt instruments. And those instruments are illiquid largely because they contain lots of toxic mortgage securities and nobody knows how much this stuff is really worth. It's unlikely that the toxic sludge makes these instruments literally worth nothing, but who knows? The mere possibility that they're worthless means that any bank who owns them might be insolvent, and since everyone owns at least some of them, this in turn means that everyone might be insolvent. Result: no one is willing to loan money to anyone else, because who wants to loan money to a bank that might never pay it back? And since huge flows of overnight interbank loans are the oil that lubricates the credit markets, when this flow seizes up, the entire credit market seizes up. (What's more, if this WSJ tick-tock is correct, the seizure became critical on Wednesday, which is why B&P changed their minds midweek about pursuing a systemwide bailout that they'd opposed earlier.)

The purpose of the bailout, then, isn't to recapitalize the banks, it's to put a firm value on the toxic sludge once and for all. Maybe it's a dime on the dollar, maybe it's 50 cents on the dollar. Whatever. When that's done and the feds have purchased the sludge, some banks will turn out to be insolvent, and perhaps they'll be allowed to fail. Others will turn out to be in bad shape but still solvent, and they'll continue doing business. Once that's sorted out, the commercial paper market will loosen back up since everyone will know who it's safe to loan money to and who it's not.

Now, there are obviously all sorts of problems here. How is the Treasury going to value all the sludge? If they value it too high, then we really are bailing out irresponsible bankers who made stupid loans, and the taxpayers will foot the bill when the sludge eventually gets sold off at a loss. Value it too low and the feds are acting as vultures, causing more bank failures than we really ought to have. Furthermore, once the sludge is off Wall Street's books and some big banks turn out to be involvent for certain, will they really be allowed to fail? Or will Bernanke and Paulson prop them up yet again?

Beats me. Obviously skepticism is warranted on these scores, especially since we're all being asked to approve the bailout basically at gunpoint. Still, it's not clear to me that Bernanke and Paulson are unaware that the real problem is insolvency, not illiquidity. Their plan, as near as I can tell, is to liquidate the sludge precisely so we can tell who's really involvent and who isn't. What's more, if Democrats manage to grow a spine over the next few days (and no, I'm not taking bets), the bailout bill could contain provisions to restructure loans for distressed homeowners, which means, contra Atrios, that all those bad loans could genuinely become a little less bad. It would be nice if this were set up so that restructuring was mandatory for any bank that wanted government help, but given the way all these mortgages have been sliced and diced over the years, I don't even know for sure if that's possible.

Again: I'm guessing here based on my current knowledge of what's going on. Anybody who thinks I'm missing the point should let me know. And obviously we should all be watching like hawks to make sure that B&P aren't offering sweetheart deals to the masters of the universe who caused the meltdown in the first place. But that's why God invented Democratic committee chairmen, right?

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