Tuesday, September 23, 2008

All hail skeptical economists!

Anil Kashyap & Jeremy Stein have some thoughts and reservations about Hank 'n Ben's plan.

After outlining a couple of relatively benign options for the bailout (buying bargains and restructuring and repackaging some types of debt) , they get down to the nitty gritty of whether, and if so in what form, there will be direct subsidies to the financial sector:

"These first two tasks are probably the easiest for skeptics of government intervention to embrace — or at least tolerate. Unfortunately, they may not be enough. The financial sector is now seriously undercapitalized — struggling institutions simply don’t have enough equity to absorb potential losses — and normal lending within the financial system will not resume until this changes.

Consider Merrill Lynch. It found itself in dire straits because it was having difficulty borrowing to finance its holdings of mortgages and other investments. With options running out, it agreed to merge with Bank of America. Upon the announcement of the merger, the borrowing money problem disappeared, even though Merrill was going to use the borrowed money in exactly the same way as before. What was new was that Bank of America had put its substantial capital base on the line.

Accordingly, a third job for the new agency might be to directly subsidize financial firms to increase their capital. One way to accomplish this would be the agency’s purposefully overpaying — relative to underlying fundamental values — for the mortgages it acquires. Mr. Paulson initially said he wanted to buy mortgages only from American companies; although he apparently changed his mind about foreign banks over the weekend, his original thinking seemed to suggest that he envisions some sort of a subsidy program.

While injecting more money into the financial sector is clearly necessary, doing it this way raises several concerns. For one thing, overpaying for the mortgages would help the banks’ current debt and stock holders. This kind of gift to existing investors (with no upside for the taxpayers providing the money) sets a terrible precedent, surpassing the Bear Stearns and American International Group bailouts, where at least shareholders saw their stakes largely wiped out.

In addition, there would be considerable scope for corruption in distributing the subsidies. Which types of mortgages would get the sweetest deals? What if some banks own disproportionately more of these high-subsidy mortgages? Designing a coherent mission and organizational structure for the agency to minimize these problems will be challenging, to say the least.

If the agency is to get into the direct subsidy business, which may be inevitable, we prefer that it also take on the role of a bankruptcy judge. The government should refuse to buy any toxic mortgage assets from a bank unless it first reaches an agreement with its long-term debt holders to erase some of the debt it owes, perhaps in exchange for stock.

Beyond the principle involved, eliminating some of the existing debt in this way would help to strengthen the bank’s balance sheet. If, in addition, the government received some preferred shares of the bailed-out bank as part of the process (as it did in the A.I.G. rescue), taxpayers might eventually share in some of the gains. Together, these steps would at least partly limit the gift element of the program.

For now, all we can do is make educated guesses at what Mr. Paulson has in mind. But Congress, which has to sign that check for him, should demand some clear answers."