Another Mile Down the Road

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 12:54 AM EDT
Yesterday I wrote that one problem with nationalizing big financial corporations is that the government probably doesn't have the legal authority to do it even if it wants to. They can seize banks, but they can't necessarily seize all the other components of big financial institutions. The Washington Post reports that the White House is about to ask Congress to change that:

The Obama administration is considering asking Congress to give the Treasury secretary unprecedented powers to initiate the seizure of non-bank financial companies, such as large insurers, investment firms and hedge funds, whose collapse would damage the broader economy, according to an administration document

....Besides seizing a company outright, the document states, the Treasury Secretary could use a range of tools to prevent its collapse, such as guaranteeing losses, buying assets or taking a partial ownership stake. Such authority also would allow the government to break contracts, such as the agreements to pay $165 million in bonuses to employees of AIG's most troubled unit.

The Treasury secretary could act only after consulting with the president and getting a recommendation from two-thirds of the Federal Reserve Board, according to the plan.

If, several weeks ago, you had charged a task force with figuring out how to successfully nationalize a big bank, what do you think they'd say you had to do? Three things, at least: (1) you have to figure out a widely acceptable way to value the toxic assets on bank balance sheets, (2) you have to set up a fair and consistent test for evaluating bank solvency based on those values, and (3) you need to make sure you have the legal authority to take over a huge, multinational financial conglomerate in an orderly way.  Is it just a coincidence that these are precisely the things Tim Geithner has set in motion over the past month?  I wonder.