Beyond Paulson

| Sat Oct. 4, 2008 3:15 PM EDT

BEYOND PAULSON....The Paulson bailout plan has several underlying theories. First, by buying up toxic securities at above market prices, it injects needed capital into troubled banks. Second, by creating a market for these securities, it will raise the value of the toxic waste held by all banks, thus raising their capital base. Third, by creating this backstop, it will encourage private sources to inject capital into banks, as Warren Buffett recently did with Goldman Sachs and GE. Since banks need capital to make loans, all of this additional capital will free up the credit markets and allow borrowers access to credit once again.

As critics have pointed out, though, this might not work. And even if it does, it isn't the most direct way of recapitalizing banks. The most direct way would be to simply inject government money into shaky banks in return for preferred shares. It's true that if all goes well, the indirect method of the Paulson plan might produce a bigger bang for the buck — but then again, it might not. So what's next?

There are several policy measures that the government probably ought to think about implementing quickly. The key to most of them is to apply them to all banks, not just banks that are in trouble. If the policies are voluntary, any bank that takes advantage of them is admitting that it's in weak shape, which in today's market is as good as signing its own death warrant. Make them mandatory and nobody is stigmatized since they're just following the rules. A few possibilities:

  • Doug Diamond and others suggest that banks be required raise more capital: "The authorities could require all regulated financial institutions, no matter how well capitalized, to present plans to raise 2% of their assets in additional capital over the next quarter to preserve the stability of the financial system. This increased capital will not represent an increase in the permanent level of required capital for bank holding companies, but instead give institutions the extra capital that will allow them to lend."

  • Sebastian Mallaby passes along a proposal to suspend dividends: "The government should tell banks to cancel all dividend payments. Banks don't do that on their own because it would signal weakness; if everyone knows the dividend has been canceled because of a government rule, the signaling issue would be removed."

  • Arnold Kling suggests temporarily reducing capital requirements for new loans: "My alternative is to encourage new lending by lowering capital requirements at the margin. Tell banks that loans issued after September 1, 2008, require half the capital of similar loans issued before September 1. Some banks are in such bad shape that even with those lower capital standards they will not be able to make new loans. Fine. You don't want those banks to grow. But other banks have room to grow, and you want them to grow more than they would under the existing regulations."

Of course, there's also the suggestion that we suspend mark-to-market rules, thus magically increasing the accounting value of bad assets and thus the capital base of the banks holding the assets. However, this seems like such a patently bad idea that I'm hesitant to add it to the list above. The rest of the ideas seem at least worth looking at, though, and can be done in addition to (and in parallel with) the Paulson plan. There's no reason to put all our eggs in one basket, after all.

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