Original Link: http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601039&sid=aNMQDysdnKRc&refer=columnist_weil
By Jonathan Weil
Now that we have a rough idea how President Barack Obama and his lieutenants plan to prop up insolvent financial institutions using taxpayers’ money, we’re left with a more difficult question: Why?
Why doesn’t the Obama administration force insolvent banks and insurance companies to come clean about their losses first? It’s the “why” that’s so vexing. The who, what, when, and how are mere details, by comparison.
More than anyone else’s, it should be in Obama’s political self-interest to accelerate the worst of the financial crisis and get as much of the inevitable pain behind us as quickly as possible. Every day he waits is one less day he will have between the time we hit rock bottom and the next election. And yet, Obama and his minions are doing all they can to delay the reckoning, which only will make it worse.
When publicly owned companies change management, often the smartest thing a new chief executive officer can do is clear the decks and take a “big bath” charge to earnings. In other words, the company writes off all its worthless assets and reports huge losses, pushing every conceivable drop of red ink into the past. The new CEO gets to blame his predecessor’s dumb mistakes. The company gets a fresh start with the investing public.
Obama could have taken the same approach with the banks the moment he took office, while he still had standing to blame the financial crisis on George W. Bush’s administration, stupid regulators, and corrupt lawmakers -- that is, everyone but himself.
He could have ordered all U.S. financial institutions to immediately confess whatever losses they hadn’t yet recognized. And he could have backed that up by vowing to prosecute every officer, director and auditor the Justice Department could find who had approved numbers they knew to be wrong.
Obama didn’t do that. And now, six months into the government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program, his administration’s approach to the financial crisis is largely indistinguishable from its predecessor’s. The only objective, it seems, is to buy time, in hopes that an economic recovery somehow will materialize and lift the financial system back to health.
The Obama administration’s “strategy,” for lack of a better word, is to keep plying broken financial institutions with as much taxpayer money as the government can print. And so the government will keep subsidizing failed mega-banks indefinitely, rather than placing any into receivership or liquidating them.
Taxpayers at Risk
The latest iteration of this policy is the Treasury Department’s Public-Private Investment Program. In short, struggling financial institutions will be encouraged to swap their most toxic mortgage-related assets with one another at inflated prices. The purchases will be financed by big government loans, so that taxpayers are at risk for the bulk of any losses.
If the government wanted transparency, it would force financial institutions to write down their bad assets now, and figure out afterward which companies deserve taxpayer support. Instead, the Treasury plans to recapitalize them first, keep their current financial condition hidden, and let their failed managers stay in their jobs.
The key assumption underlying this plan is that the declines in the values of these companies’ toxic assets are the result of private investors’ temporary reluctance to buy them, and that prices will rebound if Treasury can revive the markets where these assets trade.
The Treasury hasn’t explained why it believes the assets’ proper values are their original book values, rather than the prices unsubsidized investors are willing to pay for them. (This is one of the points made in an April 7 report by the U.S. bailout program’s Congressional Oversight Panel.) If Treasury’s hunch proves wrong, the government will need to rely on something other than a rising economy to restore the banks to solvency.
So why don’t Obama, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke force the banks to write down their troubled assets first, as a condition of government assistance? We can only speculate, because their explanations so far have made no sense.
Perhaps they’re scared the markets would panic if large, insolvent financial institutions started telling investors just how undercapitalized they are. There’s the distinct chance some of Obama’s advisers are beholden to failed banksters, because they used to work for them and may want to do so again someday.
There also could be a manpower problem. The government might not have enough employees to seize all those sickly banks and supervise the process of winding them down. Probably, it’s some combination of those and other factors.
Why else would the Treasury tell the 19 biggest U.S. banks to undergo “stress tests” of their financial health, and then put the banks in charge of performing the tests on themselves? Those reasons also might help explain why regulators pressured the board that sets U.S. accounting standards to weaken the rules on mark-to-market accounting, so the banks could hide their losses and show more capital.
Whatever the case, as long as the government refuses to remove the cancer of zombie banks from our financial system, there’s little hope the U.S. will return to robust economic growth anytime soon. And the longer our wounded banks are allowed to stagger along with no end-game in sight, the greater the risk for Obama that voters will conclude he’s as responsible for blowing the cleanup as others were for causing the crisis.
He’d better act soon. Time may not be our side any longer.