PPIP aka “The Geitner Plan”

Ken AshfordEconomy & Jobs & DeficitLeave a Comment

Get used to that acronym.

It's the shorthand term for the plan, unveiled today, about how to deal with the "toxic assets", which is at the core, the epicenter, the root, of all our current economic woes:

Here it is in a nutshell:

Under the new so-called "Public-Private Investment Program", taxpayer funds will be used to seed partnerships with private investors that will buy up toxic assets backed by mortgages and other loans.

The goal is to buy up at least $500 billion of existing assets and loans, such as subprime mortgages that are now in danger of default.

Treasury said the program could potentially expand to $1 trillion over time, but that the hope is that the program would not only help cleanse the balance sheets of many of the nation's largest banks, which continue to suffer billions of dollars in losses, but help get credit flowing again.

The government will run auctions between the banks selling the assets and the investors buying them, hoping to effectively create a market for these assets.

To kickstart things, the administration said it will commit $75 billion to $100 billion and would consider how the program is progressing before committing more money.

As a public service, I copy from Brad Delong's "Geitner Plan FAQ", which attempts to explain it in simple terms:

Q: What is the Geithner Plan?

A: The Geithner Plan is a trillion-dollar operation by which the U.S. acts as the world's largest hedge fund investor, committing its money to funds to buy up risky and distressed but probably fundamentally undervalued assets and, as patient capital, holding them either until maturity or until markets recover so that risk discounts are normal and it can sell them off–in either case at an immense profit.

Q: What if markets never recover, the assets are not fundamentally undervalued, and even when held to maturity the government doesn't make back its money?

A: Then we have worse things to worry about than government losses on TARP-program money–for we are then in a world in which the only things that have value are bottled water, sewing needles, and ammunition.

Q: Where does the trillion dollars come from?

A: $150 billion comes from the TARP in the form of equity, $820 billion from the FDIC in the form of debt, and $30 billion from the hedge fund and pension fund managers who will be hired to make the investments and run the program's operations.

Q: Why is the government making hedge and pension fund managers kick in $30 billion?

A: So that they have skin in the game, and so do not take excessive risks with the taxpayers' money because their own money is on the line as well.

Q: Why then should hedge and pension fund managers agree to run this?

A: Because they stand to make a fortune when markets recover or when the acquired toxic assets are held to maturity: they make the full equity returns on their $30 billion invested–which is leveraged up to $1 trillion with government money.

Q: Why isn't this just a massive giveaway to yet another set of financiers?

A: The private managers put in $30 billion and the government puts in $970 billion. If we were investing in a normal hedge fund, we would have to pay the managers 2% of the capital and 20% of the profits every year. In this case, the private managers' returns can be thought of as (a) a share of the portfolio's total return proportional to their 3% contribution, plus (b) a "management incentive fee" of (i) 0% of the capital value and (ii) between 0% (if the portfolio returns 3% per year) and 9% (if the portfolio returns 10% per year)–much less than hedge-fund managers typically charge. the Treasury is only paying 0% of the capital value and 17% of the profits every year.[1]

Q: Why do we think that the government will get value from its hiring these hedge and pension fund managers to operate this program?

A: They do get 17% of the equity return. 17% of the return on equity on a $1 trillion portfolio that is leveraged 5-1 is incentive.

Q: So the Treasury is doing this to make money?

A: No: making money is a sidelight. The Treasury is doing this to reduce unemployment.

Q: How does having the U.S. government invest $1 trillion in the world's largest hedge fund operations reduce unemployment?

A: At the moment, those businesses that ought to be expanding and hiring cannot profitably expand and hire because the terms on which they can finance expansion are so lousy. The terms on which they can finance expansion are so lazy because existing financial asset prices are so low. Existing financial asset prices are so low because risk and information discounts have soared. Risk and information discounts have collapsed because the supply of assets is high and the tolerance of financial intermediaries for holding assets that are risky or that might have information-revelation problems are low.

Q: So?

A: So if we are going to boost asset prices to levels at which those firms that ought to be expanding can get finance, we are going to have to shrink the supply of risky assets that our private-sector financial intermediaries have to hold. The government buys up $1 trillion of financial assets, and lo and behold the private sector has to hold $1 trillion less of risky and information-impacted assets. Their price goes up. Supply and demand.

Q: And firms that ought to be expanding can then get financing on good terms again, and so they hire, and unemployment drops?

A: No. Our guess is that we would need to take $4 trillion out of the market and off the supply that private financial intermediaries must hold in order to move financial asset prices to where they need to be in order to unfreeze credit markets, and make it profitable for those businesses that should be hiring and expanding to actually hire and expand.

Q: Oh.

A: But all is not lost. This is not all the administration is doing. This plan consumes $150 billion of second-tranche TARP money and leverages it to take $1 trillion in risky assets off the private sector's books. And the Federal Reserve is taking an additional $1 trillion of risky debt off the private sector's books and replacing it with cash through its program of quantitative easing. And there is the fiscal boost program. And there is a potential second-round stimulus in September. And there is still $200 billion more left in the TARP to be used in other ways.

Think of it this way: the Fed's and the Treasury's announcements in the past week are what we think will be half of what we need to do the job. And if it turns out that we are right, more programs and plans will be on the way.

Will it work?

One of the biggest difficulties in getting the program off the ground was how to price the soured assets. If the government paid too little, banks would take the hit. But if the government overpaid, then already-soaked taxpayers would feel the pinch.

One nagging concern, however, is whether the government's involvement will actually spur banks and private investor groups, such as hedge funds, pension plans and insurance companies to participate.

Administration officials indicated Sunday they had gotten support from private investors and banks who have been briefed about the program. But some analysts questioned whether the government's help would be enough to push investors and banks toward figuring out a price.

At the same time, there are fears that investors may be reluctant to participate in light of the fact that Congress has retroactively altered the terms of many of the government rescue programs so far.

Regulators indicated, however, that they had few other attractive alternatives.

Letting banks continue to hold these assets on their books, for example, would only drag out the crisis and could put the country in a position similar to what happened in Japan during that country's so-called Lost Decade in the 1990s.

But if the government bought all the bad assets on its own, taxpayers would take on all of the risk. By investing with private firms under the current plan, the expectation is that taxpayers would share the risk — as well as any potential returns.

So it may work, it may not.  DeLong thinks so.  But Paul Krugman (the Nobel Prize winning economist and a guy who is rarely wrong) writes this about the plan:

This is more than disappointing. In fact, it fills me with a sense of despair….

[T]he real problem with this plan is that it won’t work. Yes, troubled assets may be somewhat undervalued. But the fact is that financial executives literally bet their banks on the belief that there was no housing bubble, and the related belief that unprecedented levels of household debt were no problem. They lost that bet. And no amount of financial hocus-pocus — for that is what the Geithner plan amounts to — will change that fact.

You might say, why not try the plan and see what happens? One answer is that time is wasting: every month that we fail to come to grips with the economic crisis another 600,000 jobs are lost.

He goes on to explain that the Geitner plan isn't really "new"; it's just an extension of the Paulson plan, which didn't work.  The problem with the Geitner plan, Krugman says, is that it assumes that the banks are solvent.  We don't know this, of course, because nobody knows the value of the "toxic assets" which the banks hold.

Krugman is of the opinion that the government should simply nationalize the banks because they are (for the most part) not solvent:

There’s a time-honored procedure for dealing with the aftermath of widespread financial failure. It goes like this: the government secures confidence in the system by guaranteeing many (though not necessarily all) bank debts. At the same time, it takes temporary control of truly insolvent banks, in order to clean up their books.

That’s what Sweden did in the early 1990s. It’s also what we ourselves did after the savings and loan debacle of the Reagan years. And there’s no reason we can’t do the same thing now.

Where do I come down on this?  I'm not sure I even understand it entirely.  But clearly, the Obama Administration is doing something just short of nationalization of the banks. 

There may be political reasons for this.  With the Geitner plan, no congressional approval is needed.  For nationalization of the banks, Congress will have to approve.  And they won't unless it can be shown to them that all other options are exhausted. 

Kevin Drum argues that if nationalization is the last resort, and Treasury wants to show it tried everything else first, the Geithner plan may eventually put Congress in a position where it has no other credible choice.

Like it or not, there's only one way to get this support: show that (a) one or more of the big banks really is insolvent and (b) every other option for rescuing them has been exhausted. Geithner's plan does both. If it works — well and good. But if it fails — if nobody is willing to participate, or if the auction demonstrates that the market price for toxic assets really is accurate — then banks will be forced to mark their assets to those prices. Plug in those marks to Geithner's stress tests and it's likely to prove to everyone's satisfaction that some of our big banks really are insolvent. At that point, even skeptics will be forced to accept nationalization as the only remaining alternative.

Politically, I don't see any other way forward. Bank nationalization will be complex, costly, and contentious. To work, it will almost certainly have to include a broad guarantee of all bank system obligations, something the public won't be happy about. Congressional support won't be easy to come by. Geithner's plan will either work or else it will pave the road for that support. It might not be pretty, but that makes it a plan worth trying.

So the PPIP might be a good move politically.  But it might, as Krugman warns, simply delay the only solution, which is nationalization of the banks.  And the more we delay, the more our economy tanks and jobs get lost.

UPDATE:  I'm not one for using the Dow as a barometer for the wisdom (or lack thereof) of Washington goings-on, but the fact that the market is up 312 points (as of noon today) is encouraging.