Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Are you ready to be Geithnerized?

Geithnerize, vb: To make somebody grossly overpay for something, and still end up not owning it.

The core problem for the banking sector is that the banks have lost far, far more money than they could have and remained solvent. As Yves Smith pithily puts it:

Let's start with the basics. The US banking system is insolvent. Got that? Insolvent. That does not mean every bank in the US is toast, in fact quite a few are probably just fine, and another large group is no doubt hurting and undercapitalized, but ... a significant portion of the very biggest banks are insolvent.

The fair solution is that the insolvent current banks have to be shut down, their owners wiped out, their managers fired, and new banks started with new owners, new managers, and new capital. Fair, efficient, and straightfoward - but it will ruin many of those responsible for the disaster, especially current bank management. Their solution? Make the taxpayer pay to keep them rich - via Geithnerization!

We've already had a lot of Geithnerization already - the TARP, which overpaid by at least 87 billion for equity that doesn't carry voting rights; the Citibank bailout, where the US government gave Citibank guarantees so grotesquely underpriced they won't even let us find out what they guaranteed; and the similar BOA bailout. And the public is getting wise to the Geithnerization process.

So the new Geithner plan cleverly dresses up another (and huge!) round of Geithnerization with some platitudinous frills (but little substance) to disguise the ravenous monstrosity at the core of the plan. Lurking at the core:

a) TARP style useless equity in the "Capital Assistance Program". Undercapitalized banks get money from the treasury in return for preferred shares - inevitably underpriced, since the bank are undercapitalized. The preferred shares aren't voting, so no control over the bank for the taxpayer who's going to pay so much for it. Just like with Citi, we get to pay more than the banks are worth, and somebody else still owns it.

b) A "public-private investment fund" which will take equity mostly (read all) from the private sector to take loans from the public sector to buy assets that can't be valued accurately. Result: if the assets go up, the private investors take all the gains; if they go down private investors lose a little and the public loses a lot on the bad loan. Geithnerization for uncertain assets!

The plan has some nice-sounding frills calling for bank audits (but with no specifics), posting some information to the Web (but again, no details), and some expanded programs for mortgage modification. Of real merit is a plan to expand the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) to 1 trillion. This really helps, because as I've said, the fundamental solution is to have new bank with new money take over lending. With the TALF the Federal Reserve will be doing it. Of course the point is that since Geithnerizing the public won't actually help the credit market, they needed to put in a program that would. We don't have to rip off the public to expand the TALF.

But no detail can disguise the 1 trillion plus plan to make the taxpayer pay for investors to own and get rich on assorted shady assets. But what do you expect when you appoint a Treasury secretary whose primary goal is saving the banks from nationalization?

Are you ready to be Geithnerized now?

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