U.S. bailout plan: $2.5 trillion and a strong hand
WASHINGTON: The White House plan to rescue the nation's financial system, announced on Tuesday by Timothy Geithner, the Treasury secretary, is far bigger than anyone predicted and envisions a far greater government role in markets and banks than at any time since the 1930s.
Administration officials committed to flood the financial system with as much as $2.5 trillion ? $350 billion of that coming from the bailout fund and the rest from private investors and the Federal Reserve, making use of its ability to print money.
Mindful of previous financial crises at home and abroad that became protracted because governments moved too slowly, Geithner pointedly criticized the Bush administration for not acting boldly and quickly enough.
But the initial assessment of the plan from the markets, lawmakers and economists was brutally negative, in large part because they expected more details.
Basic questions about how the various parts of the program would work, especially those involving the unsellable mortgages that banks are holding and preventing home foreclosures, were left for another day. Some Wall Street experts criticized the plan for relying too heavily on the same vague solutions proposed by the Bush administration.
The stock market, propped up for weeks on the expectation that Washington would finally deliver a comprehensive rescue plan, dipped almost as soon as Geithner began speaking in the morning. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 382 points, or 4.6 percent, by the time the market closed. Yields on Treasury bills jumped, indicating a flight from stocks to the safety of government bonds.
While traveling in Fort Myers, Florida, President Barack Obama welcomed the news that the Senate voted 61-37 to approve its $838 billion economic stimulus bill Tuesday, but dismissed the market reaction to his bank rescue plan.
"Wall Street, I think, is hoping for an easy out on this thing and there is no easy out," Obama said in an interview with ABC News.
Many of the vital details of the program remain unsettled and are the subject of an intense behind-the-scenes debate.
The president himself had built up expectations that the plan would get ahead of the crisis ? and not lurch from pillar to post as the Bush administration did last year, often in partnership with the New York Federal Reserve under its then-president, Geithner.
A central piece of the plan ? and the one item that investors most craved information about ? would create one or more so-called bad banks that would rely on taxpayer and private money to purchase and hold banks' bad assets. But the administration provided the least amount of details about this part of the plan.
Another centerpiece of the plan would stretch the last $350 billion that the Treasury has for the bailout by relying on the Federal Reserve's ability to create money, in effect, out of thin air. The Fed's money will enable the government to become involved in the management of markets and banks in ways not seen since the Great Depression.
In the credit markets, for instance, the administration and the Fed are proposing to expand a lending program that would spend as much as $1 trillion to make up for the $1.2 trillion decline between 2006 and last year in the issuance of securities backed primarily by consumer loans.
The plan's third major component would give banks new helpings of capital with which to lend. Banks that receive new government assistance will have to cut the salaries and perks of their executives and sharply limit dividends and corporate acquisitions.
They will also have to make public more information about their lending practices. A Treasury fact sheet said that banks would have to state monthly how many new loans they make, but stopped short of ordering banks to issue new loans or requiring them to account in detail for the federal money.
Obama, in the ABC News interview, suggested that banks would be required to reveal more about their mortgage holdings.
"Essentially what you've got are a set of banks that have not been as transparent as we need to be in terms of what their books look like. And we're going to have to hold out the Band-Aid a little bit and go ahead and just be clear about some of the losses that have been made because until we do that, we're not going to be able to attract private capital into the marketplace."
The day was the first big test of Geithner as Treasury secretary, who has one of the toughest sells in America: convincing lawmakers and taxpayers that they should again bail out the very banks whose mistakes contributed to the loss of more than three million jobs and caused acute financial pain.
It was clear during the hours he spent before the cameras and lawmakers that he was well-spoken and thoughtful. But his career until now had played out behind the scenes as a civil servant and a central banker. He occasionally lapsed into financial jargon and struggled to connect to a broader public audience.
As the day wore on, Geithner faced growing skepticism from Democratic and Republican lawmakers, many of them channeling deep voter disgust with the way the government has handled the bailout over the last nine months.
Even Democrats who are supportive of the administration said that it had failed to provide more information about how it would be spending the remaining money in the bailout program.
"We need more details from Treasury on how exactly it plans to remove bad assets while protecting the taxpayer," said Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who is a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee. "We have zombie banks that are weighed down because their liabilities exceed their assets. Without a precise mechanism for addressing toxic assets, it will be difficult to increase lending."
The pessimism seemed to indicate that Geithner missed the mark with one of his shorter-term goals ? to quickly instill confidence that the Obama administration has a coherent approach to the banking crisis and that the transparency and oversight of the new program will differ markedly from the Bush administration's management of the first $350 billion that Congress authorized last year for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP.
"The spectacle of huge amounts of taxpayer money being provided to the same institutions that helped cause the crisis, with limited transparency and oversight, added to the public distrust," the Treasury secretary said, in a clear swipe at the Bush administration.
"We will have to try things we've never tried before. We will make mistakes. We will go through periods in which things get worse and progress is uneven or interrupted," Geithner said.
Representative Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who heads the House Financial Services Committee, criticized the Obama administration for not putting out more details and said it should commit more than $50 billion to avert home foreclosures.
"The secretary said the administration would present details of their foreclosure reduction plan in a few weeks, which is too much time," Frank said.
Appearing on Tuesday afternoon before the Senate banking committee, Geithner vowed to move quickly to provide more details. But Republicans were skeptical.
"Is there a concrete plan here?" Richard Shelby of Alabama, the senior Republican on the committee, asked Geithner point blank, after noting that Geithner had been part of the leadership involved in last year's bailout efforts. "What is different about the process that you are offering here to devise your plan such that we should have confidence that it is well thought out?"
There was also withering criticism from Wall Street. Ethan Harris, co-head of United States economics research at Barclays Capital, said the program was "shock and uh." He said the Treasury made a "tactical mistake" by building up expectations about a plan before it had much to announce.
"What's striking is that these are not new issues that they are facing," Harris said. "These are the same issues that the Treasury faced last fall ? how do we price the assets? The fact that it's so been so difficult to figure out the answer may tell you something about whether it's worth doing or not."
Harris warned that setting up a so-called bad bank would be very expensive, as Geithner himself acknowledged when he set the goal of creating a fund that would reach $1 trillion. Frank Pallotta, a former managing director at Morgan Stanley and a veteran mortgage trader, said the gap was so wide between what banks were valuing their assets and what investors were willing to pay that the government would attract investors to buy only if it provided a subsidy of one form or another.
"Right now, the banks aren't selling anything," said Pallotta, now a consultant to both buyers and sellers of distressed mortgages. "You have Chase thinking that its assets are worth 75 cents on the dollar, and Joe Hedge Fund who thinks they are only worth 45 or 25. There is a huge gap, and the government has to find out if there is some middle point where they can get in."
Pallotta said he did not fault the Treasury for failing to offer specifics yet, but he said it could not delay for long. "If we don't hear in the next 30 days about how this thing will flesh out, then I would be upset."