Tag Archive for 'TARP'

How to value toxic assets (part 2)

Continuing on from my previous post on this topic, Paul Krugman has been voicing similar concerns (and far more eloquently).  Although his focus has been on the idea of a bad bank (to which all the regular banks would sell their CDOs and other now-questionable assets), the problems are the same.  On the 17th of January he wrote:

It comes back to the original questions about the TARP. Financial institutions that want to “get bad assets off their balance sheets” can do that any time they like, by writing those assets down to zero — or by selling them at whatever price they can. If we create a new institution to take over those assets, the $700 billion question is, at what price? And I still haven’t seen anything that explains how the price will be determined.

I suspect, though I’m not certain, that policymakers are once more coming around to the view that mortgage-backed securities are being systematically underpriced. But do we really know this? And how are we going to ensure that this doesn’t end up being a huge giveaway to financial firms?

On the 18th of January, he followed this up with:

What people are thinking about, it’s pretty clear, is the Resolution Trust Corporation, which cleaned up the savings and loan mess. That’s a good role model, as far as it goes. But the creation of the RTC did not rescue the S&Ls. The S&Ls were rescued by (1) having FSLIC seize them, cleaning out the stockholders (2) having FSLIC pay down enough debt to make them viable (3) reselling them to new investors. The RTC’s takeover of the bad assets was just a way for taxpayers to reclaim some of the cost of recapitalizing the banks.

What’s being contemplated now, if Sheila Bair’s interview is any indication, is the creation of an RTC-like entity without the rest of the process. The “bad bank” will pay “fair value”, whatever that is, for the assets. But how does that help the situation?

It looks as if we’re back to the idea that toxic waste is really, truly worth much more than anyone is willing to pay for it — and that if only we get the price “right”, the banks will turn out to be solvent after all. In other words, we’re still in Super-SIV territory, the belief that fancy financial engineering can create value out of nothing.

Tyler Cowen points us to this article in the Washington Post that describes the issues pretty well.  Again, the crux of the matter is:

The difficulty is that banks think their assets are worth more than investors are willing to pay. If the government sides with investors, the banks will be forced to swallow the difference as a loss. If the government pays what the banks regard as a fair price, however, the markets may ignore the transactions as a bailout by another name.

Tyler Cowen’s own comment:

If the assets are undervalued by the market, buying them up is an OK deal. Presumably the price would be determined by a reverse auction, with hard-to-track asset heterogeneity introducing some arbitrariness into the resulting prices. If these assets are not undervalued by the market, and indeed they really are worth so little, our government wishes to find a not-fully-transparent way to give financial firms greater value, also known as “huge giveaway.”

Right now it seems to boil down to the original TARP idea or nationalization, take your pick. You are more likely to favor nationalization if you think that governments can run things well, if you feel there is justice in government having “upside” on the deal, and if you are keen to spend the TARP money on other programs instead.

Oops …

Well, what do you know?  The US government is (almost certainly) going to buy troubled assets after all, starting with those of Citigroup.  CalculatedRisk has been on top of it [1,2,3,4].  The last of those links contains the joint statement by the Treasury, Federal Reserve and FDIC:

As part of the agreement, Treasury and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation will provide protection against the possibility of unusually large losses on an asset pool of approximately $306 billion of loans and securities backed by residential and commercial real estate and other such assets, which will remain on Citigroup’s balance sheet. As a fee for this arrangement, Citigroup will issue preferred shares to the Treasury and FDIC. In addition and if necessary, the Federal Reserve stands ready to backstop residual risk in the asset pool through a non-recourse loan.

In addition, Treasury will invest $20 billion in Citigroup from the Troubled Asset Relief Program in exchange for preferred stock with an 8% dividend to the Treasury. Citigroup will comply with enhanced executive compensation restrictions and implement the FDIC’s mortgage modification program.

Here is a summary of the terms of the deal, with a fraction more detail:

Size: Up to $306 bn in assets to be guaranteed (based on valuation agreed upon between institution and USG).

Deductible: Institution absorbs all losses in portfolio up to $29 bn (in addition to existing reserves) Any losses in portfolio in excess of that amount are shared USG (90%) and institution (10%).

USG share will be allocated as follows:
UST (via TARP) second loss up to $5 bn;
FDIC takes the third loss up to $10 bn;

Financing: Federal Reserve funds remaining pool of assets with a non-recourse loan, subject to the institution’s 10% loss sharing, at a floating rate of OIS plus 300bp. Interest payments are with recourse to the institution.

A couple of points:

  • The US government isn’t immediately buying US$306 billion of crappy assets.  It’s guaranteeing that the value of them won’t fall too much further.  If they do, then they’ll buy ’em.  It will be interesting to see how much of this guarantee is actually called into force.
  • Notice that only US$20 billion is attributable to TARP, while the rest is entirely new.  That is presumably to make sure that the US government can continue to stand by it’s recent promise to not ask for congressional approval for the last US$350 billion available under that program.  On the other hand, I suppose it’s also likely that they want to keep the TARP money for direct capital infusions; that is, for actual money spent now rather than taking on risk.
  • To put the US$20 billion of new money into perspective, Citigroup’s market capitalisation as of Friday was US$20.5 billion.
  • It’s that “on valuation agreed upon between institution and USG” that troubles me.  Part of the reasoning given for TARP in the first place was for “price discovery” (through reverse auctions).  There was plenty of criticism of that policy, but the goal of discovering the true value of all of these assets is a noble one.  This bailout of Citi will now involve private negotiation between Citigroup and the US government to determine their value for the purposes of the guarantee.  That’s a bloody awful way to do it.

Bush does the right thing

The US$700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, otherwise known as the mother of all pork, did have one redeeming feature:  It came in tranches.  The first US$350 billion were directly accessible (some of it needed a signature from the president), but the last US$350 billion needs congressional approval.  With just 10 weeks to go in his Presidency and every company big enough to hire a lobbiest bashing on the doors for a piece of the action, George W. Bush has done the right thing:  He’s deciced to not ask for the last 350.  If soon-to-be-President Obama wants to tap it, it’s up to him.

The Bush administration told congressional aides it won’t ask lawmakers to release $350 billion remaining as part of the $700 billion U.S. financial- rescue package, people familiar with the matter said.

The Treasury Department has committed $290 billion, or about 83 percent of the total allocated so far in a program Congress enacted last month to inject capital into a wide spectrum of banks and American International Group Inc. The U.S. invested $125 billion in nine major banks, including Citigroup Inc. and Wells Fargo & Co. and plans to buy an additional $125 billion in preferred shares of smaller lenders.

Paulson told the Wall Street Journal today he is unlikely to use what remains of the package, estimated at $410 billion, unless a need arises.

“I’m not going to be looking to start up new things unless they’re necessary, unless they make great sense,” Paulson said. “I want to preserve the firepower, the flexibility we have now and those that come after us will have.”

Update: I don’t mean to suggest that the money shouldn’t be spent. Maybe it should. Professor Krugman, for one, might argue that it ought to be spent as part of a stimulus package. I just think that it’s correct for Bush to pass on deciding how to spend it. His moral authority as an economic leader was gone some time ago. Paulson’s flip-flopping, even if what he has moved to is the better plan, demonstrates the same for him. America will – I suspect – benefit from being forced to take a breather in their cries for help. Let the new team think about the whole mess carefully and then take up the responsibility handed to them.

Another update: The anonymous authors at Free Exchange aren’t so sure it’s a good idea:

It is, in effect, calling time-out on the rescue until Barack Obama is sworn in, and even then there will be a delay while funds are requested and authorised. Meanwhile, Congress has all but decided not to pursue a stimulus bill during the lame duck session. The legislature is taking up discussions on an automaker bail-out, but given resistance to a rescue among Republicans and conservative Democrats, it seems clear that any bill signed into law during the lame duck will be quite weak.

Now, Ben Bernanke will remain on duty right through the inauguration. There’s still an executive branch, and there are still plenty of international policy makers working to stabilise the global financial system. But in a very real sense, America is going to coast on its current economic policies for the next two (and in practice, three) months. I’m not sure this is a good idea, particularly given the critical nature of the holiday shopping season. By all accounts, consumers are locking up their piggy banks at the moment. A disastrous shopping season will probably mean a wave of post-holiday failures among retailers, which will, in turn, mean lay-offs (as well as pain for exporters to America).

Yes, it’s only three months, but three months is a long time for people and businesses struggling to pay bills. And if the economic situation deteriorates over that span, then the government may well feel pressured to pass a much larger and more expensive stimulus package in the spring.

I’m not convinced.  I do note that, as Paul Krugman points out, it’s difficult to have too large a fiscal stimulus in this environment.  I also think that we might benefit from backing off a little bit and abandoning the idea that America and the world at large can somehow escape the recession.  It needs to sink in.