The Toxic Assets Plan - Yes, It's a Subsidy

by: The Baseline Scenario

By James Kwak

According to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, the Treasury Department is set to announce its plan for troubled assets early next week. It will include three components. The details aren’t clear since these are anticipatory news stories, but it will be something like this (combining bits of information from the two stories):

  1. The FDIC will create a new entity to buy troubled loans, with the government contributing up to 80% of the capital and the remainder coming from the private sector. The Fed or the FDIC would then provide non-recourse loans* for up to 85% of the total funding (NYT), or guarantees against falling asset values (WSJ), which more or less amount to the same thing.
  2. Treasury will create multiple new investment funds to buy troubled securities, with Treasury contributing 50% of the capital and the rest coming from the private sector. It’s not clear from the news stories, but I think it’s highly likely that these funds will also benefit from either non-recourse loans or asset guarantees.
  3. The Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) is a program under which the Fed was already planning to buy up to $1 trillion of newly-issued, asset-backed securities** (backed by car loans, credit card receivables, mortgages, etc.). The idea was to stimulate new lending in these categories. This program will be expanded to allow the Fed to buy “legacy” assets - those issued prior to the crisis. This enables the Fed to buy toxic assets off of bank balance sheets.

Instead of coming up with one plan to buy troubled assets, it looks like the government has come up with three. (As Calculated Risk said, however, "More approaches doesn’t make a better plan” [emphasis in original].) For now, I think the concerns I expressed last month still hold. If we take as given that the government will only negotiate at arm’s length with the banks (meaning the banks can decide at what price they are willing to sell the assets), then the most important thing is for the plan to work. But it’s not clear if the degree of subsidy offered will be enough to close the gap between what investors are willing to pay and what banks are willing to sell at. Having multiple buyers and using cheap Fed financing will increase the willingness-to-pay for these assets, but we won’t know a priori if it will exceed the reserve price of the sellers.

In the best-case scenario: a) the government’s willingness to bear most of the risk encourages private investors to bid enough to get the banks to sell; b) the economy recovers and the assets increase in price from the prices paid; c) the investment funds pay back the Fed (which makes a small spread between the interest rate and the Fed’s low cost of money); and d) the government gets some of the upside through its capital investments. (I think the main purpose of that government capital is to deflect the criticism that all of the upside belongs to the private sector.) In the worst-case scenario, the market stays stuck because the banks have unrealistic reserve prices. Perhaps the idea is that, in that case, the TALF will allow the government to (over)pay whatever it takes to bail out the banks.

Most encouragingly, the headline in the Times was “Toxic Asset Plan Foresees Big Subsidies for Investors,” indicating that the mainstream media have figured out the game. (By contrast, the Times headline announcing the bank-friendly terms of the Capital Assistance Program was “Government Offers Details of Bank Stress Test.”) I may soon be out of a job. (Wait a sec, no one is paying me for this . . .)

* A non-recourse loan is made for a particular asset or set of assets. If the borrower fails to pay off the loan, the most the lender can get is the asset (he cannot go after the borrower’s other assets or income streams), so the borrower’s loss is capped at the amount he pays himself. Mortgage loans are non-recourse loans where the borrower’s loss is capped by his down payment.

** Technically, the Fed would loan money to financial institutions and take asset-backed securities as collateral. However, these would be non-recourse loans, so the financial institution could pay off the loan simply by ceding the collateral to the Fed. (It seems to me that because these are loans, if the assets appreciate in value, the financial institutions could choose to pay back the loans and take the collateral back, thereby getting all the upside, but I’m not certain about that.) The TALF will be capitalized by some money (10-20% of the total) coming from Treasury, which will absorb the first losses.