Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

January 28, 2009


Joseph Stiglitz, CNN - Put yourself in the position of a bank manager, trying to get through this mess. At this juncture, in spite of the massive government cash injections, he sees his equity dwindling. The banks -- who prided themselves on being risk managers -- finally, and a little too late -- seem to have recognized the risk that they have taken on in the past five years.

Leverage, or borrowing, gives big returns when things are going well, but when things turn sour, it is a recipe for disaster. It was not unusual for investment banks to "leverage" themselves by borrowing amounts equal to 25 or 30 times their equity.

At "just" 25 to 1 leverage, a 4 percent fall in the price of assets wipes out a bank's net worth -- and we have seen far more precipitous falls in asset prices. Putting another $20 billion in a bank with $2 trillion of assets will be wiped out with just a 1 percent fall in asset prices. What's the point?

It seems that some of our government officials have finally gotten around to doing some of this elementary arithmetic. So they have come up with another strategy: We'll "insure" the banks, i.e., take the downside risk off of them.

The problem is similar to that confronting the original "cash for trash" initiative: How do we determine the right price for the insurance? And almost surely, if we charge the right price, these institutions are bankrupt. They will need massive equity injections and insurance.

There is a slight variant version of this, much like the original Paulson proposal: Buy the bad assets, but this time, not on a one by one basis, but in large bundles. Again, the problem is -- how do we value the bundles of toxic waste we take off the banks? The suspicion is that the banks have a simple answer: Don't worry about the details. Just give us a big wad of cash.

This variant adds another twist of the kind of financial alchemy that got the country into the mess. Somehow, there is a notion that by moving the assets around, putting the bad assets in an aggregator bank run by the government, things will get better.

Is the rationale that the government is better at disposing of garbage, while the private sector is better at making loans? The record of our financial system in assessing credit worthiness -- evidenced not just by this bailout, but by the repeated bailouts over the past 25 years -- provides little convincing evidence.

But even were we to do all this -- with uncertain risks to our future national debt -- there is still no assurance of a resumption of lending. For the reality is we are in a recession, and risks are high in a recession. Having been burned once, many bankers are staying away from the fire.

Besides, many of the problems that afflict the financial sector are more pervasive. General Motors and GE both got into the finance business, and both showed that banks had no monopoly on bad risk management.

Many a bank may decide that the better strategy is a conservative one: Hoard one's cash, wait until things settle down, hope that you are among the few surviving banks and then start lending. Of course, if all the banks reason so, the recession will be longer and deeper than it otherwise would be.

What's the alternative? Sweden (and several other countries) have shown that there is an alternative -- the government takes over those banks that cannot assemble enough capital through private sources to survive without government assistance. . .

To be sure, shareholders and bondholders will lose out, but their gains under the current regime come at the expense of taxpayers. In the good years, they were rewarded for their risk taking. Ownership cannot be a one-sided bet. . .

Inevitably, American taxpayers are going to pick up much of the tab for the banks' failures. The question facing us is, to what extent do we participate in the upside return?

Eventually, America's economy will recover. Eventually, our financial sector will be functioning -- and profitable -- once again, though hopefully, it will focus its attention more on doing what it is supposed to do. When things turn around, we can once again privatize the now-failed banks, and the returns we get can help write down the massive increase in the national debt that has been brought upon us by our financial markets.


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