Paul Krugman: Wall Street Voodoo
Are policymakers about to take another wrong turn?:
Wall Street Voodoo, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Old-fashioned voodoo economics — the belief in tax-cut magic — has been banished from civilized discourse. The supply-side cult has shrunk to the point that it contains only cranks, charlatans, and Republicans.
But recent news reports suggest that many influential people, including Federal Reserve officials, bank regulators, and, possibly, members of the incoming Obama administration, have become devotees of a new kind of voodoo: the belief that by performing elaborate financial rituals we can keep dead banks walking.
To explain..., let me describe ... a hypothetical bank that I’ll call Gothamgroup, or Gotham for short.
On paper, Gotham has $2 trillion in assets and $1.9 trillion in liabilities, so that it has a net worth of $100 billion. But a substantial fraction of its assets — say, $400 billion worth — are mortgage-backed securities and other toxic waste. If the bank tried to sell these assets, it would get no more than $200 billion.
So Gotham is a zombie bank: it’s still operating, but the reality is that it has already gone bust. Its stock isn’t totally worthless — it still has a market capitalization of $20 billion — but that value is entirely based on the hope ...[of] a government bailout.
Why would the government bail Gotham out? Because it plays a central role in the financial system. ... Gotham has to be kept functioning. But how can that be done?
Well, the government could simply give Gotham a couple of hundred billion dollars... A better approach would be to do what the government did with zombie savings and loans at the end of the 1980s: it seized the defunct banks, cleaning out the shareholders. Then it transferred their bad assets to ... the Resolution Trust Corporation; paid off enough of the banks’ debts to make them solvent; and sold the fixed-up banks to new owners.
The current buzz suggests ... policy makers aren’t willing to take either of these approaches. Instead, they’re reportedly gravitating toward ... moving toxic waste from private banks’ balance sheets to a publicly owned “bad bank” or “aggregator bank” ... “The aggregator bank would buy the assets at fair value.” But what does “fair value” mean?
In my example, Gothamgroup is insolvent... The only way a government purchase of that toxic waste can make Gotham solvent again is if the government pays much more than private buyers are willing to offer.
Now, maybe private buyers aren’t willing to pay what toxic waste is really worth... But should the government be in the business of declaring that it knows better than the market what assets are worth? And is ... paying “fair value,” whatever that means,... enough to make Gotham solvent again?
What I suspect is that policy makers — possibly without realizing it — are gearing up to attempt a bait-and-switch: a policy that looks like the cleanup of the savings and loans, but in practice amounts to making huge gifts to bank shareholders at taxpayer expense...
Why go through these contortions? The answer seems to be that Washington remains deathly afraid of the N-word — nationalization. ...Gothamgroup and its sister institutions are already ... utterly dependent on taxpayer support; but nobody wants to recognize that fact and implement the obvious solution: an explicit, though temporary, government takeover. Hence the popularity of the new voodoo, which claims, as I said, that elaborate financial rituals can reanimate dead banks.
Unfortunately, the price of this retreat into superstition may be high. I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect that taxpayers are about to get another raw deal — and that we’re about to get another financial rescue plan that fails to do the job.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Monday, January 19, 2009 at 12:33 AM in Economics, Financial System, Policy |
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