Ken AshfordEconomy & Jobs & Deficit1 Comment

New York Times today:

Some of the nation’s large banks, according to economists and other finance experts, are like dead men walking.

A sober assessment of the growing mountain of losses from bad bets, measured in today’s marketplace, would overwhelm the value of the banks’ assets, they say. The banks, in their view, are insolvent.

None of the experts’ research focuses on individual banks, and there are certainly exceptions among the 50 largest banks in the country. Nor do consumers and businesses need to fret about their deposits, which are federally insured. And even banks that might technically be insolvent can continue operating for a long time, and could recover their financial health when the economy improves.

But without a cure for the problem of bad assets, the credit crisis that is dragging down the economy will linger, as banks cannot resume the ample lending needed to restart the wheels of commerce. The answer, say the economists and experts, is a larger, more direct government role than in the Treasury Department’s plan outlined this week.

Basically, this means the government is going to have to effectively by up many of these large banks.  And maybe it's time that we admit reality and restructure the entire banking system, and have the government (at least for a while) take over the banks.  

Yes, shareholders will lose their investments.  But you know what?  Big deal.  Investments are, by their very nature, a gamble.  If I buy stock in Coca-Cola, and it goes under — oh, well.  I made a bad investment.  The same for shareholders of financial institutions.  The far more important thing is that depositors's money remains intact.  We can get these bad assets of the books, close banks that aren't working, and start again.

UPDATE:  The Roubini plan is along the lines I'm talking about….

Nationalization is the only option that would permit us to solve the problem of toxic assets in an orderly fashion and allow lending finally to resume. Of course, the economy would still stink, but the death spiral we are in would stop.

Nationalization — call it "receivership" if that sounds more palatable — won't be easy, but here is a set of principles for the government to go by:

First — and this is by far the toughest step — determine which banks are insolvent. Geithner's stress test would be helpful here. The government should start with the big banks that have outside debt, and it must determine which are solvent and which aren't in one fell swoop to avoid panic. Otherwise, bringing down one big bank will start an immediate run on the equity and long-term debt of the others. It will be a rough ride, but the regulators must stay strong.

Second, immediately nationalize insolvent institutions. The equity-holders will be wiped out, and long-term debt-holders will have claims only after the depositors and other short-term creditors are paid off.

Third, once an institution is taken over, separate its assets into good and bad ones. The bad assets would be valued at current (albeit depressed) values. Again, as in Geithner's plan, private capital could purchase a fraction of those bad assets. As for the good assets, they would go private again, either through an IPO or a sale to a strategic buyer.

The proceeds from both these bad and good assets would first go to depositors and then to debt-holders, with some possible sharing with the government to cover administrative costs. If the depositors are paid off in full, then the government actually breaks even.

Fourth, merge all the remaining bad assets into one enterprise. The assets could be held to maturity or eventually sold off with the gains and risks accruing to the taxpayers.

The eventual outcome would be a healthy financial system with many new banks capitalized by good assets. Insolvent, too-big-to-fail banks would be broken up into smaller pieces less likely to threaten the whole financial system. Regulatory reforms also would be instituted to reduce the chances of costly future crises.