Treasury's Pricing of TARP Warrants: No Way Out

by: The Baseline Scenario

By Simon Johnson

Buried in the late wire news on Friday – and therefore barely registering in the newspapers over the weekend – Treasury announced the rules for pricing its option to buy shares in banks that participated in TARP.

The Treasury Department said the banks will make the first offer for the warrants. Treasury will then decide to sell at that price or make a counteroffer. If the government and a bank cannot agree on a fair price for the warrants, the two sides will have the right to use private appraisers.

This is a mistake.

The only sensible way to dispose of these options is for Treasury to set a floor price, and then hold an auction that permits anyone to buy any part – e.g., people could submit sealed bids and the highest price wins.

In Treasury’s scheme, there is significant risk of implicit gift exchange with banks - good jobs/political support/other favors down the road – or even explicit corruption. For sure, there will be accusations that someone at Treasury was too close to this or that bidder. Why would Treasury’s leadership want to be involved in price setting in this fashion?

Treasury apparently sees corruption as an issue about personalities (i.e., WE aren’t ever corrupt) rather than about institutional structure. For example, if you create an arrangement that easily permits corruption, such as through nontransparent decision making or negotiation around warrant pricing, you set up incentives to be corrupt. Either existing people change their behavior, or new people will seek appointment in order to participate in corruption.

This is also a point, by the way, that Treasury has been making for years through its representatives at the International Monetary Fund – including during the Clinton Administration, when the same people were running U.S. economic policy as now. It’s a good point and never easy for countries-with-potential-corruption to hear. It applies as much to the United States as to anywhere else.

Treasury will argue the disposal of warrants is a one-off event, but this is not a plausible line: It is part of a much longer series of nontransparent decisions over finance. The attitude that “we can be nontransparent because we will never be corrupt” creates reputational risk for both Treasury and participating banks. If extraordinary support for the financial sector lasts several years, we will likely have at least one time-consuming and damaging investigation into all the details of these settlements.

In any crisis, technical mistakes are made due to high pressure, lack of information, and political considerations; this is unavoidable. But this proposed pricing for TARP warrants looks like a pure unforced error, and should be quietly overriden by the White House – hopefully, senior congressional leaders will quickly make this point behind the scenes.

There is obviously unappealing midterm election risk in this pricing scheme and making a correction now – before major banks have participated – would be relatively straightforward.

(Primer on option pricing, applied to warrants; background on how we got here)