When you hear a sitting U.S. senator call for bankers to commit suicide, you know that the anger level in the country is reaching a “Bonfire of the Vanities,” get-out-the-pitchforks danger level. It is dangerous for so many reasons, but most of all because this real anger about A.I.G. could overwhelm the still really difficult but critically important things we must do in the next few weeks to defuse this financial crisis.
Let me be specific: If you didn’t like reading about A.I.G. brokers getting millions in bonuses after their company — 80 percent of which is owned by U.S. taxpayers — racked up the biggest quarterly loss in the history of the Milky Way Galaxy, you’re really not going to like the bank bailout plan to be rolled out soon by the Obama team. That plan will begin by using up the $250 billion or so left in TARP funds to start removing the toxic assets from the banks. But ultimately, to get the scale of bank repair we need, it will likely require some $750 billion more.
The plan makes sense, and, if done right, it might even make profits for U.S. taxpayers. But in this climate of anger, it will take every bit of political capital in Barack Obama’s piggy bank — as well as Michelle’s, Sasha’s and Malia’s — to sell it to Congress and the public.
The job can’t be his alone. Everyone who has a stake in stabilizing and reforming the system is going to have to suck it up. And that starts with the brokers at A.I.G. who got the $165 million in bonuses. They need to voluntarily return them. Everyone today is taking a haircut of some kind or another, and A.I.G. brokers surely can be no exception. We do not want the U.S. government abrogating contracts — the rule of law is why everyone around the world wants to invest in our economy. But taxpayers should not sit quietly as bonuses are paid to people who were running an insurance scheme that would have made Bernie Madoff smile. The best way out is for the A.I.G. bankers to take one for the country and give up their bonuses.
I live in Montgomery County, Md. The schoolteachers here, who make on average $67,000 a year, recently voted to voluntarily give up their 5 percent pay raise that was contractually agreed to for next year, saving our school system $89 million — so programs and teachers would not have to be terminated. If public schoolteachers can take one for schoolchildren and fellow teachers, A.I.G. brokers can take one for the country.
Let’s not forget, A.I.G. was basically running an unregulated hedge fund inside a AAA-rated insurance company. And — like Madoff, who was selling phantom stocks — A.I.G. was selling, in effect, phantom insurance against the default of bundled subprime mortgages and other debt — insurance that A.I.G. had nowhere near enough capital to back up when bonds went bust. It was a hedge fund with no hedges. That’s why taxpayers have had to pay the insurance for A.I.G. — so its bank and government customers won’t tank and cause even more harm.
Unfortunately, all the money we have already spent on A.I.G. and the banks was just to prevent total system failure. It was just to keep the body alive. That’s why healing the system will likely require the rest of the TARP funds, plus the $750 billion the administration warned Congress in the new budget that it could need.
Best I can piece together, the administration’s recovery plan — due out shortly — will look something like this: The U.S. government will create a facility to buy the toxic mortgages off the balance sheets of the major banks. They will be bought by a public-private fund or funds in which taxpayers will, in effect, be partners with hedge funds and private equity groups. The hedge funds will be there to provide expertise in pricing and trading the assets. The taxpayers will be there to guarantee — gulp — that the hedge funds won’t lose money if they take the early risks and to also lend them money to make some of the purchases. Taxpayers will benefit from any profits these partnerships make.
Once the banks sell their toxic assets, many will need capital, because, while they may be carrying these assets on their books at 85 cents on the dollar, they initially may have to sell them for less. So, the government will probably have to inject capital into more banks to maintain their solvency, but once the banks begin to clear their balance sheets of those toxic assets, they will likely attract the private capital they need and relieve the government of having to put in more.
Will it work? We can only hope. But I know this for sure: unless the banks are healed, the economy can’t lift off, and that bank healing is not going to happen without another big, broad taxpayer safety net.
The only person with the clout to sell something this big is President Obama. The bankers and Congress will have to help; every citizen will have to swallow hard. But ultimately, Mr. Obama will have to persuade people that this is the least unfair and most effective solution. It will be his first big leadership test. It is coming soon, and it is coming to a theater — and a bank — near you.