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March 21, 2009

James K. Galbraith Reponds to Geithner’s Toxic Asset Plan

Posted in: Uncategorized

I’ve just been reading the NYT report.

The central Treasury assumption, at least for public consumption, seems to be that the underlying mortgage loans will largely pay off, so that if the PPIP buys and holds, at an above-present-market price governed by auction, the government’s loan to finance the purchase will not go bad.

Recovery rates on sub-prime residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) so far appear to belie this assumption. IndyMac lost $10.8 bn on a $15bn portfolio (and if you count the wipeout of equity, the total loss is about $12bn). That’s an 80 percent loss.  It’s possible that recovery rates at other banks will be better, but how can we know?  No one is examining the loan tapes.

The NYT article points out that pools of RMBS can be sold for about 30 cents on the dollar now. But banks are unwilling to sell for less than 60 cents — either because they really think the loans will experience only a 40 percent loss rate, or because they fear that  acknowledging market value will put them into insolvency.  Which it might very well.

The way to find out who is right is to EXAMINE THE LOAN TAPES. An independent examination of the underlying loan tapes — and comparison to the IndyMac portfolio — would help determine whether these loans or derivatives based on them have any right to be marketed in an open securities market, and any serious prospect of being paid over time at rates approaching 60 cents on the dollar, rather than 30 cents or less.

Note that even a small loss of capital, relative to the purchase price, completely wipes out the interest earnings on the Treasury’s loans, putting the government in a loss position and giving the banks a windfall.

If I’m right and the mortgages are largely trash, then the Geithner plan is a Rube Goldberg device for shifting inevitable losses from the banks to the Treasury, preserving the big banks and their incumbent management in all their dysfunctional glory. The cost will be continued vast over-capacity in banking, and a consequent weakening of the remaining, smaller, better- managed banks who didn’t participate in the garbage-loan frenzy.

This will not achieve the stated goal, of bringing on new lending, for reasons already explained at length.  It’s all about not-measuring true asset quality at the big banks, permitting them to escape a clean audit, and therefore preserving them as institutions, while forcing the inevitable shrinkage of the financial sector to occur elsewhere. In short, the plan seems to me to be a very bad idea.

But the way to determine whether Geithner’s and the banks’ stated view of the toxic assets has any merit, is to demand an INDEPENDENT EXAMINATION OF THE LOAN TAPES, particularly looking to establish the prevalence of missing documents, misrepresentation, and fraud.  This can be done by a sufficient sample.  If the tapes look bad, it will be very difficult to justify the bank/Treasury view that the RMBS actually have value, which is somehow not realizable on the marketplace today because of "liquidity shortages" or "fire-sale conditions."  Maybe there actually was a fire.

In response to a question from Congressman Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) at Budget Committee on March 5, Geithner agreed to look into the possibility of EXAMINING THE LOAN TAPES. What response he gave the Congressman for the record is not yet known. Whether he has ordered any action is not yet known.

If I were a member of Congress, I would offer a resolution blocking Treasury from making the low-cost loans it expects to offer the PPIPs, until GAO or the FDIC has conducted an INDEPENDENT EXAMINATION OF THE LOAN TAPES underlying each class of securitized assets, and reported on the prevalence of missing documentation, misrepresentation, and signs of fraud. In the absence of a credible rating, this is the minimum due diligence that any private investor would require.

I hope what I’m driving at, here, is clear…

Economist James K. Galbraith is the author of The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too


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