Kevin Drum

Letting the Little Guy Invest

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 1:10 AM EDT
One of the persistent criticisms of the Geithner plan is that it's a sweetheart deal for investors.  The government puts up most of the money, downside risk is limited thanks to the non-recourse funding, and there are probably lots of ways the auctions can be gamed.  Matt Yglesias points to a comment at The Baseline Scenario that suggests a way to deal with this:

If Geithner’s taxpayer subsidized toxic public/private plan goes forward, I think it would be fair if the federal government allow non-institutional investors to participate via a no-fee investment vehicle.  I think if Americans had the option of investing in this program (without having to pay the egregious fees to the investment advisors/PE shops), it would be much easier to swallow since they would at least get the same deal the sharks are getting.

Like James Kwak, I think this is a brilliant idea, and one that Treasury should not merely allow, but actively encourage.  At least one of the fund managers chosen to participate in the program should be one that agrees to allow investment by retail customers.  In the end, Geithner's plan may or may not turn out to be a sweetheart deal, but surely us little guys should have the same chance to find out as the well-heeled crowd.

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Acorn

| Mon Mar. 23, 2009 10:43 PM EDT
I thought that "Going Galt" was pretty much as stupid as conservatives could possibly get, but I was wrong. This has it beat.  Jeebus.

Suckitude

| Mon Mar. 23, 2009 9:48 PM EDT
Have I mentioned lately that computers suck? Well, they do.

And what's the deal with everyone wanting super-widescreen monitors these days? It's practically impossible to get a native 1280x1024 monitor when your old one breaks. Like mine just did. Blecch.

Price Discovery

| Mon Mar. 23, 2009 2:31 PM EDT
Felix Salmon writes:

How Treasury's Bank Bailout Could Make Things Worse

....The minute the Treasury plan is put into action, we'll have a lot of public price discovery for the banks' bad assets. And if the prices don't clear — if the minimum price the banks will accept is higher than the maximum price that the public-private partnerships are willing to pay — then no one will any longer be able to perpetuate the fiction that America's banks are solvent.

....The big hope of the Treasury plan is that the private sector will be willing to pay a higher price for leveraged assets than it would for unleveraged assets....During boom years, that was a wager that many investors were willing to take. But now? I'm not sure. Chalk it up as yet another thing-which-has-to-go-right in order for this scheme to work. There are far too many of those for comfort.

Um, how is this a bad thing?  Isn't a whole bunch of very public price discovery exactly what we want?  Then we get to find out for sure whether banks are solvent, as they claim, or irredeemably underwater, as a lot of us suspect.  Right now they can lie about their books and no one can really prove them right or wrong.  After these auctions, though, smoke and mirrors will be a lot harder.

I don't have any more insight than anyone else about whether this is a deliberate part of Geithner's plan.  Oddly enough, though, his tongue-tied interviews about it make me suspect that it might be.  Geithner might not be the most silver-tongued spokesman in the Obama orbit, but he's not a doofus.  If he's having trouble explaining the plan in public, one reason might be that he's unable to fess up to the central pillar of the whole thing: forcing banks to put up or shut up.

Somebody is wrong about all this stuff, after all.  Either the critics are wrong, and banks are actually perfectly solvent, or else the banks are wrong, and all their memos about how they're practically sagging under the weight of all their Tier 1 capital are just a bunch of hooey.  Geithner's plan goes at least part of the way to figuring this out.

The Byrd Rule

| Mon Mar. 23, 2009 1:46 PM EDT
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have never roused myself to understand the intricacies of the budget reconciliation process and the Byrd rule. The reconciliation process is basically designed to eliminate Senate filibusters on budget resolutions, but it's the Byrd rule that specifies what counts as a budget issue and what doesn't. But who decides what the Byrd rule itself says?  Ezra Klein:

The Byrd rule allows senators to challenge the acceptability of any provision (undefined) of a reconciliation bill based on whether or not its effect on government revenues is "merely incidental" (undefined). Thus, if you enter reconciliation with a health-reform bill, it's not clear what's left after each and every provision — however that is defined — is challenged and a certain number of them are deleted altogether: the tax portions, certainly. And the government subsidies. But is regulating insurers "merely incidental" to government revenues? How about reforming hospital delivery systems? How about incentives for preventive treatment? Or the construction of a public plan? An individual mandate?

It's hard to say. The ultimate decision is left up to the Senate parliamentarian, whose rulings are unpredictable. Under George W. Bush, Republicans managed to ram tax cuts, oil drilling, trade authority, and much else through reconciliation. But they were as often disappointed: The GOP leaders fired two successive Senate parliamentarians whose Byrd rule rulings angered them.

Ah, I see. The Senate parliamentarian will decide whether we get healthcare reform this year. That's comforting to know. Perhaps Ezra's next task should be an in-depth profile of Alan Frumin, apparently the people's representative for all things healthcare related.

Housing News

| Mon Mar. 23, 2009 12:56 PM EDT
Looking for some good news?  Well, there isn't much, so this will have to do:

The National Association of Realtors said Monday that sales of existing homes increased 5.1 percent to an annual rate of 4.72 million last month, from 4.49 million units in January. It was the largest sales jump since July 2003.

Sales had been expected to fall to an annual pace of 4.45 million units, according to Thomson Reuters.

....February’s median sales price was up slightly from January, which recorded the lowest median price since September 2002. Prices are down about 28 percent from their peak in July 2006.

It's not clear what caused this, since home prices are almost certainly going to keep falling another 20% or so.  In fact, this might even be bad news in a way, since the faster we hit bottom and get back to trend growth, the faster we're likely to see the end of the recession.  But really, these days, who knows?

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Exposing Torture

| Mon Mar. 23, 2009 12:32 PM EDT
This is good news:

Over objections from the U.S. intelligence community, the White House is moving to declassify — and publicly release — three internal memos that will lay out, for the first time, details of the "enhanced" interrogation techniques approved by the Bush administration for use against "high value" Qaeda detainees....According to the administration official, ex-CIA director Michael Hayden was "furious" about the prospect of disclosure and tried to intervene directly with Obama officials. But the White House has sided with Holder.

Obama's record so far on the related issues of torture, civil liberties, detention, and surveillance has been mixed.  I hope that part of this is simply the caution of a new administration that doesn't want to make irreversible decisions before it's given them enough thought.  Releasing these memos is a small sign that perhaps once they've settled in they'll start unraveling the abuses of the Bush-era more thoroughly.

(Via Andrew Sullivan.)

Leverage

| Mon Mar. 23, 2009 11:58 AM EDT
In Tim Geithner's Public-Private Investment Program for buying up toxic waste, just how much is public and how much is private?  The Washington Post seems to have the right answer:

With the government financial support, private investors could end up putting down only about 7 percent of the price of an asset, with the rest contributed by the government and by private lenders who receive government guarantees.

This appears to be based on TARP funds providing half the equity stake and the FDIC loaning money for the rest at leverage not to exceed 6:1.  But is this enough?

We'll see.  One of the key sources of tension in this plan is getting this number right.  If private investors have too low a stake, the opportunity for gaming the system is high.  They might overbid on assets, for example, because their stake is small enough that they can make more money on side bets than they can on the main investment.  Conversely, if the private investors are required to put up too much money, they won't participate.  Without some leverage, the projected returns just aren't good enough.

Overall, Geithner's plan provides leverage of about 12:1.  That strikes me as too high.  I'd rather see private investors having at least a 10-15% stake.  But I guess time will tell if Geithner got this component of the plan right.

You Say You Want a Revolution?

| Mon Mar. 23, 2009 1:35 AM EDT
Is class warfare — the real kind, not the phony conservative talking point kind — close to becoming reality? Felix Salmon has a short post on the subject that's worth reading.

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.