June 20, 2013
Congress Sings the Bailout Blues
Posted on Jan 18, 2009
(2) Transparency and Asset Evaluation. The need for transparency is closely related to the issue of accountability. The confidence that Treasury seeks can be restored only when information is completely transparent and reliable. Currently, Treasury’s strategy appears to involve allocating the majority of the $700 billion to “healthy banks,” banks that have been assessed by their regulators as viable without federal assistance. Of course, whether a bank is “healthy” depends critically on the valuation of the bank’s assets. If the banks have not yet recognized losses associated with over-valued assets, then their balance sheets – and Treasury’s assessment of their health – may be suspect.
Many understood the purpose of EESA to be providing assistance to financial institutions that were “unhealthy” and at risk of failing. Such institutions were at risk, the public was told, due to so-called toxic assets that were impairing their balance sheets. EESA was designed to provide a mechanism to remove or otherwise provide clear value to those assets. The case of Citigroup illustrates this problem. Treasury provided Citigroup with a $25 billion cash infusion as part of the “healthy banks” program whereby Treasury made nine initial investments in major banks. About two months later, Treasury provided Citigroup with $20 billion in additional equity financing, apparently to avoid systemic failure, but it did not classify that investment as part of the Systemically Significant Failing Institution program (SSFI program). These events suggest that the marketplace assesses the assets of some banks well below Treasury’s assessment. To date no such mechanism to provide more transparent asset valuation has been developed, meaning that the danger posed by those toxic assets remains unaddressed. The bubble that caused the economic crisis has its foundations in toxic mortgage assets. Until asset valuation is more transparent and until the market is confident that the banks have written down bad loans and accurately priced their assets, efforts to restore stability and confidence in the financial system may fail.
(3) Foreclosures. The crisis in the housing sector continues to affect any efforts at recovery. In enacting EESA, Congress called upon Treasury to
“implement a plan that seeks to maximize assistance for homeowners and use the authority of the Secretary to encourage the servicers of the underlying mortgages, considering net present value to the taxpayer, to take advantage of the HOPE for Homeowners Program under section 257 of the National Housing Act or other available programs to minimize foreclosures. In addition, the Secretary may use loan guarantees and credit enhancements to facilitate loan modifications to prevent avoidable foreclosures.”
(4) Strategy. The Panel’s initial concerns about the TARP have only grown, exacerbated by the shifting explanations of its purposes and the tools used by Treasury. It is not enough to say that the goal is the stabilization of the financial markets and the broader economy. That goal is widely accepted. The question is how the infusion of billions of dollars to an insurance conglomerate or a credit card company advances both the goal of financial stability and the well-being of taxpayers, including homeowners threatened by foreclosure, people losing their jobs, and families unable to pay their credit cards. It would be constructive for Treasury to clearly identify the types of institutions it believes fall under the purview of EESA and which do not and the appropriate uses of TARP funds. The need for Treasury to address these fundamental issues of strategy has only intensified since our last report.
The issues related to strategy have wider implications as well. It appears that Treasury in its post-American International Group, Inc. (AIG) actions is using public dollars to support the value of equity in financial institutions. What strategy lies behind that decision? What about other alternatives? Would it be better and more cost effective to encourage private capital investors to assume control of such banks? Should those banks be required to maintain higher capital or liquidity positions or to pay higher Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insurance premiums? Should we focus on ensuring that systemically significant institutions meet their fixed obligations and let the equity in such institutions be fully at risk, as we did in AIG? Should we simply let market forces work – letting sick banks fail and the healthy banks take the business? The Panel does not embrace any of these suggestions. Instead, it asks whether Treasury is involved in that re-thinking process.
The Panel recognizes that Treasury has many pressing obligations, and the Panel appreciates Treasury’s efforts to give timely responses. Ultimately, the Panel hopes that by posing these questions and offering these comments that it can be helpful to Treasury as it attempts to find more effective tools to deal with the current financial crisis.
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