There’s currently an idea to fix the financial system that’s getting quite a bit of traction: an RTC-type program whereby the government would buy $1 trillion of troubled assets from struggling U.S. banks, with the goal of restoring them to health so they can begin lending again, leading to an economic recovery.
The problem with this idea (let’s call it “New RTC”) is that either the government will pay market prices for the toxic assets – in which case, it will simply accelerate the collapse of our financial system – or pay above-market prices, in which case taxpayers will likely suffer big losses.
There is another option, however, which involves debt holders taking a share of the losses. If steps are not taken to ensure that this happens, the greatest heist in history will have occurred: at least $1 trillion will be transferred from taxpayers to debt holders of failed financial institutions. This must not be allowed to happen.
Mark-to-Market vs. Real Losses
To understand the government’s dilemma, one must realize that the great majority of the not-yet-recognized losses in our financial system are not short-term, mark-to-market losses that will someday be reversed, but permanent losses. This is a huge misunderstanding that many people, especially those in Washington , seem to be suffering from.
To understand why the losses are real, consider this simple example: imagine a bank that lent someone $750,000 via an Option ARM mortgage to buy a McMansion in California at the peak of the bubble less than two years ago. Virtually all homeowners with this type of loan will default, thanks to declining home prices, the structure of the loan, and the fact that 70-80% of Option ARMs were liar’s loans. If we assume the house is only worth $400,000 today, then there’s been an actual loss of $350,000. That money will never be recovered. If one considers the millions of toxic loans made during the bubble – subprime, Alt-A, Option ARM and second mortgages, home equity lines of credit, commercial real estate, leveraged loans, credit cards, etc. – it easily adds up to at least $1 trillion in additional, unrecognized very real losses.
Imagine that New RTC buys this loan for $400,000. In this case, it might not lose money, but then the bank (or the structured finance pool) holding the loan has to immediately realize the loss of $350,000 – and it is certain that the U.S. (and world) financial system has not even come close to marking these assets to what they’re really worth, which explains why they won’t lend, even when given new money. Thus, if New RTC buys these assets at fair value, then the financial institutions suffer the losses – but this would bankrupt many of them. Yet if New RTC pays the inflated prices they’re marked at today, then it (and taxpayers) will suffer huge losses.
Who Should Bear the Losses?
To save our financial system, somebody’s going to have bear these losses – the only question is, who? Some fraction of this will certainly have to be taxpayer money, but all of it needn’t be if the government would stop bailing out all of the debt holders...MORE