How do we feel about the Obama administration’s bank bailout plan?
Tough. The economic crisis is the most important current event there is. But when you see Alan Greenspan on TV announcing that he can’t quite get his head around collateralized debt obligations, there’s a definite temptation to throw in the towel and change the subject.
No, we’re made of stronger stuff. We’re citizens, darn it.
As we’re all supposed to know, the Obama plan revolves around the creation of a public-private investment fund to help the banks sell off their toxic assets.
The first important thing to point out is that the fund is not, under any circumstances, to be considered a bad bank. A bad bank is something created by a government to buy up toxic assets, cleaning out the financial system and then disposing of said assets for whatever the market will bear.
Which sounds ... not irrational. But when you think of a bad bank, what do you imagine?
You walk into the lobby decorated with portraits of Bernie Madoff, past a row of tellers who are not giving out any money because they are all too busy planning to have octuplets or adopting a chimpanzee as a family member. The executive suite is empty because everybody has gone off on his or her own personal corporate jet. To lunch. Which would consist only of products made with peanut butter. And the bad bank would, of course, have a corporate softball team that was open only to employees who took steroids on a regular basis.
So, no bad banks. The government is just going to be a kind of helper, bringing the toxic asset buyers and sellers together, maybe creating some incentives to make the deals happen.
This is going to take some really powerful persuasion. We’re pretty sure that a bunch of foreclosed homes in Coral Gables have value, even if the water in their swimming pools has turned a disturbing shade of green. But they’re all scrambled in those financial instruments that Alan Greenspan can’t get a grip on.
One problem with the government plan is that nobody is ever going to have any confidence in a savior called “public-private investment fund.” The term aggregator bank has been floated around; the Treasury Department should consider stealing it, since it sounds like a kind of Transformer. In a crisis, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner could just yell “Aggregator, we need help!” And a normal-looking office building would instantly change into an enormous avenger who clumps down the street squashing the nasty little toxic assets that scurry around, making unpleasant squeaks.
If the banks and investors don’t get together and make deals, the Aggregator could always threaten to step on them.
Is any of this necessary? What if the government just decides to stay out of it? Why doesn’t Washington stick to putting people to work building unnecessary highways and wait for capitalism to right itself?
That’s a nonstarter because we’d wind up like Japan did in the ’90s, and nobody wants to be like Japan in the ’90s. It is true that we all wanted to be like Japan in the ’80s, in every possible way. But now, that is so over.
The financial community wants the government involved, but it hates, hates, hates the Obama approach. This is partly because the details are fuzzy and partly because it is not Wall Street’s own favored option, which involves giving the banks tons and tons and tons of money until there is so much cash sloshing around that the financial markets bob up and start to float.
We are trying not to get too fixated on the fairness aspects of the bailout. However, this approach seems to resemble a plan in which you fix a classroom that’s distracted by one disruptive pupil by sending said troublemaker to a private school in Lucerne equipped with an on-campus ski lift while the rest of the kids stay at Millard Fillmore Elementary, sharing textbooks.
Also, if you just prop up dead banks, they could turn into zombie banks. That is definitely something you want to avoid. Imagine walking down the street and there’s a zombie bank plunked on the corner, gazing emptily at the passing traffic and making strange grunting noises. Occasionally, it will snatch up some pedestrians and feed them to the toxic assets.
Instead of dancing around the problem, can’t we just have the government take over the impacted banks, hire all the unemployed bond traders to figure out how much the toxic assets are worth, dispose of them for whatever the market will bear and then sell the newly reconstituted banks back to private investors? That was Sweden’s approach, and it worked rather well.
The answer is that Americans will never do anything that Sweden does. Never have, never will. Don’t argue with me. It’s a rule.