The treasury plan is a nuclear option. The only way it can work to solve the central problem, recapitalizing banks, is if the Treasury buys so many mortgages that we raise mortgage values to the point that banks are obviously solvent again. To work, this plan has to raise the market value of all mortgage-backed securities. We don’t just help bad banks. We bail out good banks (really their shareholders and debt holders), hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds, university and charitable endowments – everyone who made money on mortgage-backed instruments in good times and signed up for the risk in bad times. This is the mother of all bail-outs...Cochrane also posits some less-risky, more proven alternatives to the Treasury's plan, including the orderly failure and re-purchase of banks, stock issues, and guaranteeing short-term credit between banks.
Short of that, it will not work. Suppose a bank is carrying its mortgages at 80 cents on the dollar, but the market value is 40 cents. If the Treasury buys at 40 cents or even 60 cents on the dollar, the bank is in worse trouble than before, since the bank has to recognize the market value. Unless the Treasury pushes prices all the way past 80 cents on the dollar up to 90 or even 100, we haven’t done any good at all. And $700 billion is a drop in the bucket compared what that would take.
There is a lot of talk about “illiquid markets,” “price discovery,” and the “hold to maturity price;” the hope that by making rather small purchases, the Treasury will be able to raise market prices a lot. This is a vain hope – at least it is completely untested in any historical experience. Never in all of financial history has anyone been able to make a small amount of purchases, establish a “liquid market” and substantially raise the overall market price.
Since the Treasury will not be able to raise overall market prices, it will end up buying from banks that are in trouble, at prices fantastically above market value. This is transparently the same as simply giving the banks free money. Make sure the taxpayers get a thank-you card.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Cochrane on the Financial Crisis
Dr. John Cochrane, whom my colleagues and I hope to invite to speak at our university this spring, has a straightforward critique of the Treasury bailout plan on his website. Here's a glimpse: