Divide the world into the consolidated financial sector and taxpayers. Under PPIP, each dollar a "public-private investment fund" overbids provokes a net transfer to the consolidated financial sector from taxpayers. The size of transfer to the financial sector increases with the degree to which bids are overpriced, and is maximized if the true asset value is very small relative to the price actually bid. If an asset is worth $6 dollars, and financial sector actors purchase a contract for $7 while the Treasury invests alongside, the consolidated finacial sector gains a dollar. But if financial sector actors pay $70 for the same asset, the financial sector would receive a net transfer from taxpayers of up to $118. (For more detailed arithmetic, see below.) The more financial sector actors are willing to overbid, the greater the net transfer from taxpayers to the financial sector. In theory the scale of the transfers is limited only by the quantity of asset purchases the government is willing to guarantee.
There are problems with this story. In real life there is not a consolidated financial sector, but a lot of different players who are usually in the business of competing with one another. PPIP includes rules and tools by which the government could prevent the use of taxpayer money to fund overpriced bids, and ensure that the parties who take small losses are distinct from the parties who make large gains, eliminating incentives to overbid. An important question is whether the government genuinely wishes to prevent backdoor transfers to the financial sector, or views such transfers as a desirable means of helping core financial institutions. (See Joe Weisenthal and Noam Scheiber)
It is worth noting that overcoming coordination problems so that diverse parties can collaborate on profitable ventures is precisely what the financial sector is supposed to be good at doing. Ideally, we would like the profitable ventures to be welfare-improving projects in the real economy, but there is little question that financial sector actors will gladly apply the same skillset to extracting transfers and rents when the opportunity presents itself. Attempts to regulate away intentional overbidding by cooperating parties will have to outwit some very clever professional deal makers.
A few more caveats — financial sector actors do pay taxes, so they are not distinct from the taxpayers from whom transfers are made. Qualitatively, this overlap would't change the story very much. (Quantitatively, it's interesting, you'd have to think hard about the realizability of "deferred tax assets" from losses the financial sector would absorb without the transfers.) The numbers I'm using are for the PPIP whole loan program. The degree of nonrecourse leverage that will be provided by the Fed towards the securities purchase program is as far as I know unspecified.
There are way too many good links on this issue, but rortybomb's take is my all-time fave.
Restricting to the last 24 hours or so, see also Scurvon, Carney, Sachs, Nemo, Krugman, Free Exchange, Felix Salmon, Economics of Contempt, and Cowen. See also articles in the Financial Times (ht Conor Clarke, Calculated Risk) and the New York Post (ht Yves Smith). As far as I know, Karl Denninger is the first person to have pointed out the potential for gaming. My first take on this issue is here. Mish has a very similar take (here, here, and here). I'm sure I've left many great posts out of this linksplatter. My apologies to the unsung pundits.
Case 1: A private fund buys an asset for $7, but pays only $1, as the rest is borrowed from the bank via an FDIC guaranteed loan. The Treasury invests along side 1:1, purchasing the same asset on the same terms. The asset is really worth $6. The private fund loses its dollar, but this becomes a gain to the selling bank, causing neither a loss or gain to the consolidated financial sector. However, the Treasury also loses a dollar, which becomes a gain to the selling bank, and amounts to a transfer of $1 from taxpayers to the consolidated financial sector.
Case 2: A private fund buys the same asset for $70, of which it pays $10 cash and borrows the rest on an FDIC guaranteed nonrecourse loan. The Treasury invests along side 1:1, purchasing the same asset on the same terms. The asset is really worth $6, so each purchase amounts to a transfer of value to the bank of $64 dollars. When the value becomes known, the FDIC (indirectly) accepts the $6 asset in exchange for $60 of loan extinguishment, bearing $54 of the private investor's $64 loss. The net effect of the private investment is a transfer of $54 from taxpayers to the consolidated financial sector. Taxpayers bear the full loss of $64 on the Treasury's investment. So the total transfer fronm the public to the private sector is $118.
|Steve Randy Waldman — Tuesday April 7, 2009 at 2:47am||permalink|