I am not, on balance, a fan of the proposed megabailout of the financial system. But if it is going to happen, we should require at the very least this — that taxpayers learn immediately what assets they have purchased, from whom, and for how much.

We should tolerate no more of what the Fed did when it bailed out Bear Stearns' creditors. Maiden Lane LLC sits opaque on the Fed's balance sheet, hiding an unknowable book of derivatives and a portfolio of assets valued at about $29B, coincidentally almost exactly what the Fed kicked in to purchase them. If we are going to spend roughly a trillion dollars on assets that self-styled masters of the universe failed to value, we ought at least have the opportunity to take a crack at pricing them ourselves, especially once we've bought them. It will be essential to form opinions about whether the assets Secretary Paulson will purchase from his former colleagues are fairly priced. The possibility of chummy dealing, the near impossibility of avoiding it, is obvious.

Further, the word confidence keeps coming up, we must restore confidence in the American financial system. It is not enough that we hand over our money, we must hand over our trust as well. Surely, then, if this is a new era of trust, there should be no problem with requiring sellers to disclose at precisely what value the assets for sale had been booked on their financial statements, with criminal penalties for misstatement. We should be able to evaluate, in the light of day, how forthright financial institutions have been in representing their true condition to potential investors and the public-at-large. We may find that some have played things relatively straight, while others survived by sleight-of-hand and exaggeration. The former group will have earned our confidence. The latter will have earned something else.

This is not "a modest proposal", presented in irony. If we are going to spend hundreds of billions of dollars, absolute transparency strikes me as a minimal prudential requirement. They say sunshine is the best disinfectant. I'm afraid there is a lot of rot in our financial system. It's time to open up the windows wide.

Update History:
  • 20-Sept-2008, 5:30 p.m. EDT: Changed "to require" to "with requiring".
  • 20-Sept-2008, 5:30 p.m. EDT: Changed "hundreds of trillions" to "hundreds of billions". Many thanks to commenter Alan Brown!

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Steve Randy Waldman — Saturday September 20, 2008 at 2:28pm [ 14 comments | 0 Trackbacks ] permalink

Okay. Let's leave no room for ambiguity here. The Treasury's draft plan for saving the world is breathtakingly awful. It would give the Secretary of the Treasury entirely unchecked discretion over up to 700B dollars. Even that "limit" has a loophole big enough that you could drive a truck through it, so the Secretary could in effect spend up to 1.8T dollars, right up to the newly raised Federal debt ceiling, without further Congressional action. This act would be such a wholesale delegation of the power of the purse that I wonder whether it is even constitutional. Of course, the act explicitly puts the Secretary's actions beyond any judicial review, so perhaps questions of legality or constitutionality are merely academic. (Paul Campos shares these concerns.)

As Paul Krugman has pointed out, for the plan to help insolvent institutions, the Treasury would have to overpay for these assets. Yves Smith unearths an account that Secretary Paulson has acknowledged this fact in private, although he won't cop to it on the Sunday talk shows. It is almost old-fashioned to raise questions about whether or not the former Wall Street banker will offer sweetheart deals to his industry (an industry that has harmed the American economy more deeply than most people realize). Just as big lies boldly asserted can trump plausible untruths nervously defended, overt corruption on a massive scale (but "in the public interest") might leave a lot of naysayers dumbstruck. It becomes the way we do business. Of course, none of Dean Baker's progressive conditions, none of Brad DeLong's dealbreakers, not even my plea for a little transparency are incorporated into the proposal.

The oldest technique for the usurpation of power by the executive from the legislative is the manufacture of a state of emergency. That is not to say the present financial crisis is not actually an emergency. But the how the crisis is understood by legislators and the range of options by which it might be addressed have been set by Messrs Paulson and Bernanke. They have presented a single option, one more radical than seemed reasonable even at the height of the depression. (ht Brad DeLong)

It is worth noting that Paulson and Bernanke have thus far proven themselves to be capable technocrats. (Although, as Dean Baker points out, they've been awful prognosticators.) There's a lot to disagree with in how the dynamic duo have handled the torrent of crises that began last August. But they have acted aggressively and creatively, and in their ad hoc interventions so far, they've gone to some lengths to create upside for taxpayers and to squeeze miscreants at least a bit. Until reading the text of the Treasury's proposal and stewing on it overnight, I was inclined not to fight too hard. I saw things as I'm sure legislators see things: Something must be done, a megabailout is disagreeable and imperfect, but it's something that we can do quickly, and it's what our experts, whom we trust, recommend. Let's fiddle at the margins to get it done as best we can.

But the proposed text flipped a switch in my brain. This is not, as Senator Schumer put it, "a good foundation of a plan that can stabilize markets quicklyā€¯. It is a raw arrogation of power. My trust, my willingness to extend the benefit of the doubt, has evaporated.

This is overreach. This is bad.

See also... Glenn Greenwald, John Hempton, Sebastian Mallaby, David Merkel, Robert Reich, among many, many others, I am sure.

For a contrary view, check out the always thoughtful knzn. I disagree pretty strongly, but he's always worth reading.

FD: I am short broad stock indices, which seem to like the prospect of a bailout, so opposing the plan might seem self-interested. But I am longer precious metals and I'm short long-maturity Treasuries. My guess (and of course it is only a guess) is that those positions would do well under the plan.

Update History:
  • 21-Sept-2008, 9:15 p.m. EDT: Removed some ungrammatical excess words, an "on" and a "be do", doo-be-doo-wah.
Steve Randy Waldman — Sunday September 21, 2008 at 3:18pm [ 9 comments | 0 Trackbacks ] permalink

Commenter "geee" asks a very good question:

[W]ould banks and other financial institutions be allowed to act as conduits to hedge funds selling these securities?

Given that Ben Bernanke has conceded that it is the government's intention to purchases assets at a "hold-to-maturity" price rather than at a price near market bids, banks favored by Paulson could earn a nice living serving as a market-maker to any entity in the world holding bad paper. Bank buys "toxic" asset from hedge fund, individual, foreign government, whomever, for something above the market bid and then resells to Treasury for the "hold-to-maturity" price, earning a nice spread. All those "blockages" in the financial system might start flowing real fast, into as well as out of our poor sclerotic banks.

This adds to concerns expressed by others that banks would acquire bad mortgages and structure new assets eligible for "hold-to-maturity" sale. (The plans do have language specifying "originated on or before", but it is ambiguous whether that refers to the mortgages or the securities that wrap them, and there is a big loophole, see below).

A related concern is that the Treasury would purchase assets that are simply inappropriate. Both the Paulson and Dodd plans now permit the purchase "any other financial instrument, as [the Treasury Secretary] determines necessary to promote financial market stability." The term "financial instrument" covers a lot of ground. In particular, I am uncomfortable with the prospect that the Treasury might take over third parties' contingent liabilities, as the Fed did when it acquired a book of derivatives from Bear Stearns. (The Fed is at least somewhat shielded from liability by its holding company, Maiden Lane LLC. As far as I know, the Treasury would not be.)

With all the world nervous about counterparty risk, having the US government become a "risk-free counterparty" would undoubtedly soothe nerves, but it could put tax-payers on the hook for indeterminate payouts in a bad scenario. Suppose a hedge fund or non-US insurer that has written a lot of CDS protection goes down, and the dreaded counterparty cascade does occur? I don't think the Treasury should be in the business of trying to insure the 60+ trillion dollar CDS market. (Yes, that's notional, but blown counterparties mean questionable netting, so liabilities in a bad scenario could become a significant fraction of notional even on a hedged book.) Nothing in either of the major proposals forbids the Treasury from going down that road, and there are all kinds of reasons, some public-spirited and some corrupt, why it might. There needs to be hard and fast language forbidding positions in financial instruments on which losses are not limited to the upfront cost of purchase.

I don't mean these to be very constructive suggestions. I still don't like either plan, though I'd much prefer Dodd to Paulson. But in any plan, there have to be controls on what sort of positions can be taken, including when the asset was last restructured, when ownership was most recently transferred, and that the Treasury's liability must be strictly limited.

While I'm on this, I want offer a shout out to Calculated Risk for continuing to push on transparency. I cannot believe that the government may trade nearly a trillion dollars of assets on my behalf, and I may never learn exactly what it did. I would never invest in a "rocket science" hedge fund whose manager refused to disclose what he was up to. It looks like I may end up paying taxes to one. There is a lot about this plan that really has me angry, but the shrouded-in-shadows aspect more than anything else has me wondering whether this is still America. A Congressional oversight committee is not enough. Investors with 700 billion dollars under management at the very least deserve the frequent statements that any retail brokerage would issue, enumerating and detailing the performance of all assets transacted.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Paulson's vacuum cleaner?
  2. Bad.
  3. Truth & Reconciliation
Steve Randy Waldman — Wednesday September 24, 2008 at 6:56pm [ 6 comments | 0 Trackbacks ] permalink