There is a lot of chatter about different plans, market anticipations, and pitfalls when it comes to “fixing” the economy and, specifically, nationalization. Despite the fact that I don’t have the same reach as several uneducated members of the media, I figured I’d share what I think the way forward is, regardless.
Step 1: Nationalize Citi and Bank of America. Let’s be honest, with recent talks of expanded stakes, ringfenced assets, and no end of the losses in sight, it’s probably time the U.S. Government came to grips with the fact that they already own the losses and the positive impact of letting shareholders keep the upside is nonsensical. Further, these institutions will need more money for a long time to come. And, if you’re paying attention, you know that the markets seem to twist and turn with the news coming out of financial institutions. Nationalization rumors depress the markets, talks of further government action scare away new capital, and the fundamental health of these firms makes current investors run.
Step 2: Begin lending. With so much chatter and anger about institutions not lending, it almost makes me wonder why there is such a deep lack of understanding. These sick institutions are trying to shrink their balance sheets and have a ton of souring assets on them. They have to raise capital to support their current asset base, so why do we really expect these banks and other firms to lend? Some would claim that lending for the sake of lending got us into this mess, but they are either telling only part of the story or don’t get it–excessive leverage and poor risk management got us to this point. In fact, I suspect that defaults on even the riskiest loans would be much lower if bank capital was free enough to continue making mortgage loans based on normal requirements for returns and risk/reward.
So, how do we begin lending? Simple, start a government bank. Well, not exactly, but the government now owns Fannie, Freddie, AIG, Citi, and BofA (see step 1). Clearly the government now (by step 2) has the infrastructure and technical know-how to manage the logisitical issues of setting up and running a lending platform. Now the government can lend directly and not wait for sick banks to do it. Further, they can underwrite to fairly normal lending standards and get a premium return on their capital. Also, rather than poaching the nationalized entitites’ “talent,” the government cam employ many out of work finance workers throughout the country (after all, lending in Missouri should probably be done by people in Missouri).
Step 3: Begin replenishing bank assets with new, cleaner assets. With all of these souring assets on the books of banks, their capital base being eroded, and leverage decreasing, TARP capital is probably being deployed very inefficiently and, obviously, conservatively. Well, since step 2 involves lending and creating assets, the government should then implement an auction process–all assets the government creates would then be auctioned off, much like treasury bonds are, to banks. Since the government would be lending based on normal underwriting standards (as compared to the previous paradigm of loan underwriting), these assets would have a strong credit profile and will likely perform much better than legacy assets. JP Morgan, for example, should jump at the chance to generate higher levels of retained earnings by buying assets when the rates it needs to pay are at historically low levels, once its capital frees up. This solves the chicken-and-egg problem of curing sick banks, hurting from consumer defaults and depressed economic activity, to free up the credit markets and getting economic activity to increase despite a lack of credit.
One could easily permute this plan in many ways. One possible way is to offer to swap new assets for legacy assets at current market levels to facilitate a much more immediate strengthening of the banks’ balance sheets. Another variation could include some partial government guarentee on assets it originates. I’m sure there are thousands more ways one could add bells and whistles.
Step 4: Broaden the Fannie and Freddie loan modifications and housing stabilization plan to the government’s new properties. I suppose this should be some sort of addendum to step 1, but it’s important enough to require some emphasis on it’s own. With Citi and Bank of America being so large, I’m sure the housing stabilization plan will have a much broader reach once those are wards of the state. We’ve all heard the arguments for stopping foreclosures and refinancing borrowers… When the house next door is foreclosed upon, your house loses tens of thousands of dollar in value, increases housing supply, etc.
Step 5: Break up the institutions that are owned by the government. Markets have been clamoring for Citi to be broken up for years. Bank of America shareholders probably want Merrill to be broken off A.S.A.P. (ditto for Countrywide). Chew up these mammoth institutions and spit out pieces that, in the future, could fail because they aren’t too big. This should be done to AIG, Citi, Bank of America, and both Fannie and Freddie.
Step 6: Immediately implement a new regulatory regime. This is pretty much a “common sense measure.” President Obama has begun to call for this, and it’s pretty clear that with no more major investment banks around, the S.E.C.’s role needs to be re-defined. I’ve already laid out my thoughts on what this new structure should look like.
Between all of these steps, we should have the tainted institutions out of the system, credit will start to free up, banks asset base will become more reliable, and systemic risks will go down as we significantly decrease the number of firms that are “too big to fail.” Seems logical to me…