Bad Bank – Worse Bank

So what do we think of Geithner’s Bad Bank idea? Is this the solution that will finally fix the economy? Will this mark a Bottom ™?

First of all, the universal bad bank idea is much better than how the TARP is currently being utilized, namely equity injections into private banks. When you have the government actually owning private companies, it opens up any number of Pandora’s boxes. Already the government is trying to influence how banks operate by forcing them to lend out TARP injections. That’s a terrible precedent.

On the other hand, if the government simply buys certain assets from banks, that’s could be the end of it. Congress could attach certain rules and regulations surrounding the asset purchases, for example, forcing banks to agree to executive pay restrictions. But once the purchases have happened, that could be the end of it.

If you want to some day return to real capitalism, then we need to figure a way to get through the current crisis. But we also need to do it in such a way that government interference in private business is minimized. As long as government owns banks, that isn’t happening.

How should the purchases of bad assets be handled?

I’d like to see it done something like this. We form a new company, call it LoanCo. The Federal Government capitalizes LoanCo with some amount of money, say $500 billion. LoanCo agrees to hold weekly reverse auctions. Each auction is held with specific types of mortgages or mortgage securities. For example, one week might be OptionARMs with a certain FICO range, original loan size range, vintage year and interest rate. The next week would be a different set of characteristics.

Each bank would offer to sell their block of loans at some price, expressed as a percentage of original loan amount. LoanCo would have a pre-determined total amount they will be buying. The purchases would occur at the lowest price that “cleared” the market. Essentially, banks would be giving LoanCo limit sell orders. Bank of America might say they’d sell some set of loans at 60% of par or better. If LoanCo gets all the loans they want by paying 30%, then B of A is left out in the cold. If LoanCo winds up paying 70%, then B of A simply gets better execution.

But rather than get cash for the bad assets, the selling bank gets stock in LoanCo. All interest received by LoanCo is initially retained, but all principal is immediately returned to shareholders. The government guarantees half of the principal in these loans. In exchange, the government keeps all interest payments until LoanCo starts winding down and keeps any principal payments over the initial purchase price. So for example, if a loan was sold to the government at $60 but they eventually recover $80, taxpayers keep the $20.

(Note there is a somewhat similar plan being proffered in today’s WSJ. Robert Pozen’s idea is similar to mine in many ways, but I like mine better).

The advantage of my system is that banks would get capital relief, as LoanCo stock has a guaranteed value of at least $0.50 cents on the dollar. It would also make investors in banks feel more confident, knowing that the value of distressed mortgage assets can’t be any worse than half of its current value.

This would also create a somewhat market-based price for the “bad” assets, at least more so than creating some model to determine a price. There is a good chance that LoanCo would suffer from selection bias. Banks would have to submit loans with certain criteria, but they would clearly pick the “worst” loans that fit that criteria. But in the scheme of things, this shouldn’t be a deal breaker.

The downside of this plan is that banks get very little in fresh cash, only certainty as to the downside on their assets. But I argue that’s not all bad. If we just give banks cash, they are essentially allowed to grow earnings on the backs of taxpayers. By issuing stock, the banks get the capital certainty they need, but have to figure out how to grow earnings on their own.

And I argue that banks will start lending once the fear of another round of bank runs diminishes. The margins on new loans should be excellent. I don’t think we need to dole out free cash in order to incent banks to lend.

And the best part about LoanCo is that its clearly a one-time deal. The moral hazard and long-term government intervention problem is limited.

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