We don't know exactly what Timothy Geithner has in mind for the "Public-Private Investment Fund". But we do have a few hints. First, we know that among its purposes is that it
allows private sector buyers to determine the price for current troubled and previously illiquid assets.
And we also know, that on the very day Mr. Geithner offered his outline of a financial stability plan, the Federal Reserve announced its intention to expand its Term Asset-Backed Securities Lending Facility, or "TALF" to up to a trillion dollars, coincidentally the round number that Geithner suggested the "PPIF" might expand to. Hmmm. What is the TALF again?
Under the TALF, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York will provide non-recourse funding to any eligible borrower owning eligible collateral... As the loan is non-recourse, if the borrower does not repay the loan, the New York Fed will enforce its rights in the collateral and sell the collateral to a special purpose vehicle (SPV) established specifically for the purpose of managing such assets... The TALF loan is non-recourse except for breaches of representations, warranties and covenants, as further specified in the MLSA.
Does your head spin, acronym upon acronym, non-recourse, warranties, and covenants? Well, unspin it. The New York Fed is telling us, in plain and simple legalese, that it is planning to make a very generous gift to investors that participate in this program (and indirectly to the banks that sell assets to them). A non-recourse loan bundles an ordinary loan with an option to "put" the collateral back to the lender instead of paying off the loan. Sometimes this is not much of a gift: When a pawnbroker lends you half of what your Fender Stratocaster is worth, and the fact that you can surrender the guitar rather than pay off the loan is cold comfort. But if someone fronts you substantially all of what an asset is worth, and the value of that asset is uncertain and volatile, then the put option bundled into the "loan" becomes extraordinarily valuable. If the asset appreciates, you take the profits and "ka-ching!". If the asset falls in value, the lender takes the trash and eats the loss.
A near-the-money option is itself a valuable asset. Offering non-recourse loans to participants in the PPIF would directly contradict the program's goal of "allow[ing] private sector buyers to determine the price for... troubled... assets." Private sector buyers would not be pricing the assets themselves: they would be pricing a portfolio containing a troubled asset and a free, three-year put option, courtesy of the Fed. Depending on how much of the transaction the government is willing to finance, the value of the put option could represent a substantial fraction of the value of the asset being priced. This is a subsidy, that would be incorporated in the sales price of the asset and split by banks and private investors. It amounts to the government bribing investors to certify banks as more solvent than they are, by overvaluing bank assets in subsidized purchases.
John Hempton wrote a very brilliant essay on what it means for a bank to be solvent. If you haven't read it, go do. Hempton's definitions 2 and 3 of bank solvency — current accounting value (which implies mark-to-market valuation for many assets) and economic value as an ongoing enterprise — diverge because the cost of funding for investors in risky bank assets is unusually high. Under these condition, Hempton reasonably suggests, private fund managers will be unable bid assets up to their best estimates of "hold-to-maturity value", less a "normal" risk premium, because investors are desperately unwilling to hold anything other than government guaranteed securities. Definition 3 is a very generous view of what it means for a bank to be solvent, because it implies that the actual market risk premium is wrong, that an estimate of hold-to-maturity asset values by a reasonable analyst, even accounting for risk, would put those values above current market bids. But in evaluating bank solvency we should be generous: Since an insolvent bank must be nationalized (reorganized, received, conserved, preprivatized, whatever), we should try to avoid declaring as insolvent banks that do have positive economic value, since that would amount to a capricious expropriation of private property.
But generosity in evaluation is distinct from a generous cash gifts from taxpayers to banks and investment funds. What is required to get a generous but still accurate evaluation of bank solvency is inexpensive funding, so that analysts willing to bet on what a "toxic asset" is worth can borrow the funds they need to back their spreadsheets with shekels without giving away all the upside to nervous lenders. What is not needed, what is in fact positively counterproductive, is to give investors a special bonus in the form of a free option if they buy the asset. This guarantees that assets will not be accurately priced (they will be overpriced), and reduces analyst incentives to value assets carefully and generate reliable market prices.
I actually think having the government offer cheap, full-recourse loans on a maturity-matched basis to investors willing to bear the risk of holding currently disfavored assets is a clever idea. ("Maturity-matched" means investors don't have to worry about margin calls: as long as they get the long-term values right, they can ride out any tempests in mark-to-maket prices.) We do need a market in these assets, and if it is true that funds availability for people willing and able to bear the risk of ownership is preventing such a market from arising, then by all means, that's a "market failure" the government can correct. But the key point is that a market price is the price at which private parties are willing to bear that risk. If funds are provided non-recourse, much or all of the risk of ownership is absorbed by the lender. Any prices that result from "private" purchases by investors funded at high-leverage on a non-recourse basis are not market prices at all. Such prices would be sham prices, smoke-and-mirror prices, sneaky off-balance sheet public subsidy prices.
We are all tired of the lies, Mr. Geithner. By all means, let nationalization be a last resort, and do all you can to offer liquidity to private parties willing to take both the upside and downside of speculating in questionable paper. But if you keep nationalizing the downside and privatizing the upside, it will not be very long at all before the public concludes that stress tests and market prices are just a sleight-of-hand for Davos man while he picks our pockets, again. Act fairly, and you may end up nationalizing the worst few of the larger banks. Keep up the games, and we will insist that you nationalize them all. It is getting hard to believe that there is a banker in the land who has not already robbed us. Eventually we will tire of drawing fine distinctions.
Afterthought: There's another way to generate price transparency and liquidity for all the alphabet soup assets buried on bank balance sheets that would require no government lending or taxpayer risk-taking at all. Take all the ABS and CDOs and whatchamahaveyous, divvy all tranches into $100 par value claims, put all extant information about the securities on a website, give 'em a ticker symbol, and put 'em on an exchange. I know it's out of fashion in a world ruined by hedge funds and 401-Ks and the unbearable orthodoxy of index investing. But I have a great deal of respect for that much maligned and nearly extinct species, the individual investor actively managing her own account. Individual investors screw up, but they are never too big to fail. When things go wrong, they take their lumps and move along. And despite everything the professionals tell you, a lot of smart and interested amateurs could build portfolios that match or beat the managers upon whose conflicted hands they have been persuaded to rely. Nothing generates a market price like a sea of independent minds making thousands of small trades, back and forth and back and forth.
|Steve Randy Waldman — Saturday February 21, 2009 at 4:53am||permalink|