Kevin Drum

The Road to Nationalization?

| Mon Mar. 23, 2009 1:09 AM EDT

I've already made my semi-defense of Tim Geithner's toxic waste buyup plan, and I won't repeat myself here. But there is one point that I think deserves a post of its own.

It's this: Do supporters of bank nationalization really think it's either legally or politically feasible at this point in time? I'm skeptical on both counts. Legally, I'm not sure Obama has the statutory authority to take over a big bank. He may well need congressional authorization of some kind first. And even if he doesn't, does anyone really think it would be wise to go down this road without broad congressional support anyway? I don't.

Like it or not, there's only one way to get this support: show that (a) one or more of the big banks really is insolvent and (b) every other option for rescuing them has been exhausted. Geithner's plan does both.  If it works — well and good. But if it fails — if nobody is willing to participate, or if the auction demonstrates that the market price for toxic assets really is accurate — then banks will be forced to mark their assets to those prices. Plug in those marks to Geithner's stress tests and it's likely to prove to everyone's satisfaction that some of our big banks really are insolvent. At that point, even skeptics will be forced to accept nationalization as the only remaining alternative.

Politically, I don't see any other way forward. Bank nationalization will be complex, costly, and contentious. To work, it will almost certainly have to include a broad guarantee of all bank system obligations, something the public won't be happy about.  Congressional support won't be easy to come by. Geithner's plan will either work or else it will pave the road for that support. It might not be pretty, but that makes it a plan worth trying.

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Eating It

| Sun Mar. 22, 2009 3:35 PM EDT
Atrios pungently describes the main objection to the Geithner plan:

Aside from setting up an overly complicated plan to try to disguise what they're really doing, the utility of the Geithner plan rests (or pretends to rest, not sure) on one fundamental premise: that Big Shitpile is greatly undervalued by "the market" and that these mortgage securities really have expected revenues which justify higher prices. One could have reasonably believed this months ago, I have no idea why anyone would believe this now. The housing bubble burst, and now recession is here. There's a lot of shit to be eaten, the question is who will eat it? Timmeh wants to make sure it's not the banksters.

Although I'm less sure than Atrios that we should accept the market's verdict on this stuff unquestioningly, he certainly might turn out to be right. But it's worth noting that taxpayers are going to eat almost all of this shit no matter what happens. If Geithner's plan fails, we eat it. If we nationalize the banks and become owners of all the toxic waste, we eat it. This financial crisis is going to cost the government a ton of money no matter what we do at this point.

Now, it's true that if we nationalize we'd wipe out the shareholders of the bad banks. But although that's the right thing to do, it's also pretty small potatoes since stock prices have dropped so far that shareholders in bad banks have virtually no equity left at this point. (Sweden didn't even bother trying to wipe out shareholders when they nationalized Nordbanken in 1992, for example. They just bought out the minority shareholders at the highly depressed market price.) What's more, a lot of those shareholders are mutual funds and pension funds anyway. The amount of bankster wealth that would be wiped out in a nationalization is probably pretty small.

It's not so much that I disagree with Atrios about this, just that I think he overstates the issue here. Nationalization would hurt bankers a little bit, and it would give taxpayers a bigger upside than the current plan. That's good. But it would also be ungodly complex and create plenty of problems of its own. It's worth avoiding if there's another solution.

If Geithner's plan fails because it turns out that the market price for all this toxic waste is really correct, then his stress tests will almost certainly show that Citigroup and Bank of America are insolvent. At that point, he's out of options and it's time to nationalize. Paul Krugman's fear about Geithner's plan is that "this will be the administration’s only shot," but I think that's wrong. In fact, far from making nationalization more difficult, its failure would make it both inevitable and broadly acceptable. All by itself, that's probably a good reason to let Geithner give this his best shot.

Valuing the Toxic Waste

| Sun Mar. 22, 2009 2:45 PM EDT
The details of Tim Geithner's plan to buy up banks' toxic waste are still a little vague, but liberal reaction (Krugman, Baker, Smith) has mostly been pretty harsh regardless. Their primary criticism is simple: banks aren't willing to sell their mortgage-backed assets at market prices because they think the market is panicked and only willing to buy at fire sale prices. And fire sale prices will ruin them. But if the government buys at the price banks value this stuff at, they're almost certainly paying too much. It might rescue the banks, but only by essentially giving away lots of free money.

This is all true, but it's a little too glib. After all, if markets can overvalue assets on the way up — and obviously they can — then they can also undervalue them on the way down. There's a pretty good chance that the toxic waste in question really is worth more than the market is currently willing to pay for it.

I think this sometimes get obscured because of a lazy shorthand that a lot of us have fallen into: namely the notion that the value of mortgage-backed securities is certain to keep plummeting because home prices themselves still have another 20-30% to fall. But these securities aren't backed by the value of the homes they represent. They're backed by mortgage payments. Home prices could fall by half, but the value of the securities wouldn't drop by a dime if homeowners kept making their monthly payments. Their value only drops if default rates go up.

So what causes default rates to rise? Falling home prices are certainly a factor, since it's more tempting to mail in the keys when your loan is way underwater. Rising unemployment is an even bigger factor: if you lose your job, you're more likely to stop paying the mortgage. And the crappy lending practices at the height of the bubble produced a surplus of buyers who have always been more likely to default than average.

But there are also forces that can reduce default rates. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are buying up billions of dollars worth of mortgages and renegotiating their terms. Barack Obama has committed $75 billion in direct aid for distressed homeowners. Congress is likely to allow bankruptcy judges to rewrite the terms of mortgage loans. And the Fed is trying to reduce long-term interest rates, which will allow homeowners to refinance their loans at lower rates.

Obviously, then, there's tremendous uncertainty about future default rates. But the market appears to be valuing most mortgage-backed securities these days at something like 30 cents on the dollar. That's crazy. When you factor in recovery rates, it assumes that over three-quarters of all homeowners will default on their loans. That might be true of the absolute worst of the toxic waste, and it's certainly true of the equity tranches of even the better stuff, but on average? No way. 30 cents on the dollar simply doesn't represent a reasonable long-term value for most of this stuff.

But everyone is scared, and when there are no buyers prices get unreasonable. So maybe with some nudging (along with plenty of leverage from Uncle Sam), Geithner's plan will motivate private investors to spend more time really trying to figure out what this stuff is worth and making fair bids for it. It's true that there are tricky aspects to running the auctions that Geithner may or may not be able to solve, but if his plan works it will help clean up bank balance sheets and keep taxpayers from getting fleeced. And if it doesn't work? There's always nationalization.

So it's probably worth a try. In the meantime, I'll recommend again Brad DeLong's FAQ, which explains the mechanics of the plan pretty well (though it might be wrong on some of the details since it's based on conflicting press reports). And I'll also re-recommend James Galbraith's post suggesting that we might not have to guess so much about the value of all this toxic waste if banks were forced to allow independent examiners to look at the loan tapes and find out just how vulnerable all these mortgage are.

UPDATE: Robert Waldmann makes the case that the market is actually valuing this stuff pretty accurately. That certainly might be true.  But if it is, then Geithner's plan will fail, the value of the toxic waste will be settled beyond question, and insolvent banks will be exposed for what they are.  That's a good thing, no?

Predator Update

| Sun Mar. 22, 2009 1:06 PM EDT
Greg Miller of the the LA Times reports that the CIA says its stepped up Predator attacks in Pakistan have been enormously successful:

An intense, six-month campaign of Predator strikes in Pakistan has taken such a toll on Al Qaeda that militants have begun turning violently on one another out of confusion and distrust, U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism officials say.

....The stepped-up Predator campaign has killed at least nine senior Al Qaeda leaders and dozens of lower-ranking operatives, in what U.S. officials described as the most serious disruption of the terrorist network since 2001.

....Officials said that the surge in strikes has less to do with expanded capabilities than with the decision to skip Pakistani approval. "We had the data all along," said a former CIA official who oversaw Predator operations in Pakistan. "Finally we took off the gloves."Officials said that the surge in strikes has less to do with expanded capabilities than with the decision to skip Pakistani approval. 

....The effect was immediate....CIA officials had suspected that their targets were being tipped by Pakistani intelligence to pending U.S. strikes; bypassing the government ended that concern.  It also eliminated delays. Former CIA officials said getting permission from Pakistani authorities could take a day or more, sometimes causing the agency to lose track of the target.

I find this pretty believable.  There's really not much question that there are plenty of high-level ISI operatives who are sympathetic to al-Qaeda and likely to tip them off to upcoming attacks.  And as the article mentions, the Pakistani government knows this perfectly well.  Its objections to the drone attacks have been decidedly pro forma.

But even if this is all true, it's still not clear that the short-term success of the Predator program outweighs its long-term potential for blowback.  For now, though, I'll let smarter people than me try to figure that out.

Valuing the Toxic Waste

| Sun Mar. 22, 2009 2:47 AM EDT
A combination of user idiocy and lame blog software just wiped out a long post I wrote about the Geithner plan to buy up toxic waste, and I'm too tired and annoyed to try to recreate it tonight.  Instead, I'll just recommend two other posts for now: Brad DeLong's FAQ and James Galbraith's plea to open up the loan tapes.  As for the mechanics of the plan itself, who knows?  I've read three different articles about it, and since all three disagree on some of the details and are vague on others I'm not sure there's much point in getting too deeply into it at this point anyway.  So for now, just read those other guys and wait for Monday when the plan will be officially announced.

More on the Kindle

| Sat Mar. 21, 2009 9:02 PM EDT
Here's a couple more things about the Kindle that I wouldn't have guessed before I started using it.

#1: In the past, I'd go to the bookstore and buy several books at a time.  Naturally I meant to read all of them, and just as naturally, I didn't.  Another book would catch my eye before I'd finished them all, a review book would come in the mail, I'd get a few books for Christmas, etc. etc.  The upshot is that some of the books would fall to the bottom of the pile and never get read.

With the Kindle, though, there's no pile.  When I finish a book, all I have to do is decide at that moment what I feel like reading next.  Ten minutes later I have it.  I don't know for sure if this is good or bad in the long run, but it's certainly different.

#2: I have a floater in my right eye that can get pretty annoying when I read.  However, I only really see it against a bright white background.  Today my floater was in high gear, but I noticed that it wasn't bothering me while I was reading because the background of the Kindle is a soft gray.  When I first got it, that soft gray annoyed me, but now I see that it was a blessing in disguise

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Friday Cat Blogging - 20 March 2009

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 3:15 PM EDT
On the left, Inkblot is worried that Congress will consider him a fat cat and tax his evening dinner bonus away.  I told him it actually counts as straight salary in his case, so no worries.  On the right, we have a rare shot of Domino actually walking somewhere.  It's not that she never does this, just that it's hard to take a picture of it since she instantly makes a beeline for the camera if she sees it pointed in her direction.  This time I caught her just in time.

Debt, Debt, Debt

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 2:54 PM EDT
The Congressional Budget Office released some new numbers today and the White House had this to say:

Responding to today’s new, more pessimistic CBO scoring of the president’s budget in light of the deteriorating economic situation, Peter Orszag was at pains to emphasize that deficit projections are highly sensitive to relatively small changes in assumptions. For example, suppose that first you project revenues of $100 and spending of $103 for a $3 deficit. Then you get some bad news about the economy so projected revenue drops by five percent. Well, suddenly you’re looking at a deficit of $8. The alarming way to put this is that the deficit has nearly tripled. The calm way is that revenue has fallen by 5 percent.

Well, yes, deficit projections are highly sensitive to small changes in assumptions, which is why presidents traditionally tweak their assumptions to produce rosy economic projections.  It doesn't take much.  Obama and Orszag actually did this less than most administrations in their initial budget proposal, I think, but they still did it.  And now it's coming back to bite them since, in fact, the alarming way of looking at this is also the correct one.

Now, given the current state of the economy, a larger deficit might be a feature, not a bug.  But if the deficit stays above 4% of GDP for an entire decade, as the CBO suggests, then we have a problem.  We can't keep that up forever any more than Wall Street could keep the subprime bubble going forever.  Someday we're going to pay.

Happy New Year

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 1:18 PM EDT
President Obama, showing his command of YouTube once again, wishes the Iranian people a happy Nowruz:

So in this season of new beginnings I would like to speak clearly to Iran's leaders.  We have serious differences that have grown over time.  My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community.  This process will not be advanced by threats.  We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.

You, too, have a choice.  The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations.  You have that right — but it comes with real responsibilities, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization.  And the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated ability to build and create.

Unsurprisingly, the initial reaction from Iranian leaders wasn't very enthusiastic.  But it's still a constructive gesture.  Symbols matter, and they make the substance a little easier to address when the time comes to talk substance.  I just hope they got the Persian subtitles right.

Taxing the Bonuses

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 12:55 PM EDT
This is a little embarrassing to admit, but by yesterday I'd gotten so tired of the AIG story that I barely even noticed the details of the House bill to claw back all the bonuses.  But it's a monster.  Taxing the million-dollar bonuses is one thing — I may be a little ambivalent about that, but overall I don't think it's all that problematic — but the bill that passed last night taxes away bonuses from anyone with a household income over $250,000.  That's a couple of mid-level analysts.  This is likely to hit tens of thousands of fairly ordinary workers who had nothing to do with AIG's troubles and who simply don't deserve this kind of treatment.

A friend of mine who describes herself as "Marxist at heart" but has nonetheless been trying to convince me all along that the tax clawback idea is a horrific idea, points me to this article in the Post today about how AIG employees are reacting to the death threats and armed security guards in the parking lots:

A sense of fear hung in the room -- the palpable, unsettling kind that flashes across people's eyes. But there was anger, too. No one would express it publicly, of course. Who wants to hear a wealthy financier complain? And yet, within those walls off Danbury Road lies a deep sense of betrayal — first by their former colleagues, now by their elected leaders.

The handful of souls who championed the firm's now-infamous credit-default swaps are, by nearly every account, long since departed. Those left behind to clean up the mess, the majority of whom never lost a dime for AIG, now feel they have been sold out by their Congress and their president.

"They've chosen to throw us under the bus," said a Financial Products executive, one of several who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals. "They have vilified us."

They say what is missing from this week's hysteria is perspective. The very handsome retention payments they received over the past week were set in motion early last year when the firm's former president, Joe Cassano, was on his way out the door. Financial Products was already running into trouble on its risky credit bets, and the year ahead looked grim. People were weighing offers from other firms, and AIG executives feared that too many departures could lead to disaster.

So AIG stepped in with an offer to employees of Financial Products. Work through all of 2008, and you'd get a lump payment in March 2009. Stick around through 2009, and you'll get paid through 2010. Almost all other forms of compensation — bonuses, deferred payments and the like -- have vanished.

"People are trying to do the right thing," the same Financial Products executive said. "Guys have worked their [tails] off to try to get value for the taxpayer. This isn't money that's being advanced to us. People have performed the work and done it exactly as we asked them to do."

I don't know what the Senate will do with the House language, but they simply can't leave it the way it is.  A high marginal rate on million-dollar bonuses at bankrupt companies is one thing, but putting huge swathes of their professional staff in the same boat is another.  If this is where populist outrage is taking us, it's time for a timeout.