Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What to do about the banks?

And this from the New York Times.
JANUARY 21, 2009, 4:00 PM
Should Obama Seize Citigroup?

By ERIC ETHERIDGE
This is probably not a news story that a new president wants to read on his first full day in office. Bloomberg.com reports:

U.S. financial losses from the credit crisis may reach $3.6 trillion, suggesting the banking system is “effectively insolvent,” said New York University Professor Nouriel Roubini, who predicted last year’s economic crisis.

“I’ve found that credit losses could peak at a level of $3.6 trillion for U.S. institutions, half of them by banks and broker dealers,” Roubini said at a conference in Dubai today. “If that’s true, it means the U.S. banking system is effectively insolvent because it starts with a capital of $1.4 trillion. This is a systemic banking crisis.”

Last week’s bad news from Citigroup and Bank of America had already prompted a round-robin discussion in the blogosphere on the wisdom of nationalization. With tongue somewhat in cheek, John Quiggin blogged at Crooked Timber on Monday:
All reasonable commentators now agree that nationalisation of big banks like Citigroup, Bank of America and Royal Bank of Scotland must take place soon, explicitly or otherwise. As I said at just before the second (failed) Citigroup bailout, banks like Citi are not only too big to fail, they’re too big to rescue with any of the half-measures that have been tried so far.

Others were wary of this solution: At his New Yorker blog, The Balance Sheet, James Surowiecki wrote the same day, “I think that as the ‘nationalize now’ meme has taken hold in the blogosphere, people are talking about nationalization ‘awfully casually.’ . . . [T]he idea that most of Barack Obama’s Presidency will be spent presiding over a government-run banking system is a daunting thought.”

And at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen listed his concerns about how a nationalization strategy would play out:

How many years of profits are needed to create the cushion of capital which is required for re-privatization? And how many years of government ownership will be needed to generate that many years of profits? Will banks owned by the government be allowed to pursue profits, rather than lending to troubled industries in the districts of influential Congressmen? Or will government just stick money in the bank and hope they have thereby created a sound enterprise?

Quiggin’s argument is that current rescue efforts — especially including leaving current bank managers in place — simply won’t work. Blogging today in response to Surowiecki and others, Quiggin writes:

Financial restructuring is going to be a huge challenge, involving both a radical redesign of national regulations and the construction of an almost completely new global financial architecture. To attempt this task while leaving the banks under the control of discredited managers nominally responsible to shareholders whose equity has, in the absence of massive transfers from taxpayers, been wiped out by bad debts, seems like doing live electrical work while wearing a blindfold and standing in a pool of water.

In Britain, where the banks and the pound are collapsing, and the government announced its new, just-short-of-nationalization rescue plan on Monday, Financial Times blogger Willem Buiter is leading the charge for going all the way.

Yesterday he laid out his thinking in a long post, which began with a comparison of the recent banking excesses in Iceland and the U.K.:

Both countries allowed the unbridled growth of banks that became too large to fail. In the case of Iceland, the banks also became too large to rescue. In the UK, the jury is still out on the ‘too large to rescue’ issue, but I have serious and growing concerns. Incrementally, the British authorities have guaranteed or insured ever-growing shares of the balance sheets of the UK banks. And these balance sheets are massive. RBS, at the end of June 2008 had a balance sheet of just under two trillion pounds. The pro forma figure ws £1,730 bn, the statutory figure £1,948 (don’t ask). For reference, UK GDP is around £1,500 bn. Equity was £67 bn pro forma and £ 104bn statutory, respectively, giving leverage ratios of 25.8 (pro forma) and 18.7 (statutory), respectively.

With a 25 percent leverage ratio, a four percent decline in the value of your assets wipes out your equity. What were they thinking? The fact that Deutsche Bank used to have a leverage ratio of 40 and is now proud to have brought it down to just below 34 is really not a good excuse.

Buiter goes on to argue that the near-nationalization rescue plans will only make things worse:

In the name of preventing a collapse of the UK banking system, we are witnessing the socialisation — at first gradual, but now quite rapid — of all balance sheet risk of the UK banks by the UK government. This is risky and, in my view, unwise. The manner in which it is done also seems designed to maximise moral hazard. The good news is that it is unnecessary for restoring and maintaining the flow of new credit in the the British economy. . .

My belief that the UK government should take over all UK high street banks (on a temporary basis) is based on the simplification this would provide as regards the governance of these institutions under extreme circumstances, when private ownership and governance have clearly failed, and on its positive effect on incentives for future bank behaviour (’moral hazard). When the public interest and the interests of the existing private shareholders and the incumbent managers and boards of directors diverge as manifestly as they do in this crisis, the sensible thing to do is to buy out the existing shareholders (as cheaply as possible). That way the failed and failing management and boards can be restructured (fired without golden parachutes) and the new owner can insist on and enforce an open, verifiable valuation of toxic and dodgy assets, on and off the balance sheet of the bank.

He then lays out his four-point plan:

(1) Take into complete state ownership all UK high street banks. This has to be mandatory, even for the banks that still like to think of themselves as solvent.

(2) Fire the existing top management and boards, without golden or even leaden parachutes, except those hired/appointed since September 2007.

(3) Don’t issue any more guarantees on or insurance for existing assets - regardless of whether they are toxic, dodgy or merely doubtful. Issue guarantees/insurance only on new lending, new securities issues etc. A simple rule: guarantee the new flows, not the old stocks. This will reduce the exposure of the government to credit risk without affecting the incentives for new lending.

(4) Transfer all toxic assets and dodgy assets from the balance sheets of the now state-owned banks (or from wherever they may have been parked by these banks) to a new ‘bad bank’. If possible, pay nothing for these toxic and dodgy assets. Since the state owns both the high-street banks (I won’t call them ‘good’ banks) and the bad bank, the valuation does not matter.

Back in the States, watching Tim Geithner’s confirmation hearing today, Kevin Drum seizes on this remark by the soon-to-be Treasury Secretary:

The tragic history of financial crises is a history of failures by governments to act with the speed and force commensurate with the severity of the crisis. If our policy response is tentative and incrementalist … then we risk greater damage to living standards, to the economy’s productive potential, and to the fabric of our financial system … In a crisis of this magnitude, the most prudent course is the most forceful course.

Drum’s conclusion?

Nationalization fans should rejoice at hearing this. More and more, that includes me, by the way. The news out of Britain is beyond grim right now, and [throughout] this financial crisis the U.S. has never been more than a couple of months behind the UK. If that stays the case, nationalization of at least a couple of big banks will hardly even be a debatable option a few weeks from now.
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