from John Hussman, Phd.-
Last week saw a continuation of the impenetrably misguided policy response to this financial crisis, which seeks to address the downturn by encouraging more of what got us into this mess in the first place. The U.S. Treasury's toxic assets plan, for instance, looks to "leverage" public funds (with the FDIC providing the "6-to-1 leverage") in order to defend the bondholders of mismanaged financials who took excessive leverage. At the same time, the Treasury plans to limit the "competitive bidding" to a few hand-picked "managers" who will be encouraged to overpay thanks to put options granted at public expense. This is a recipe for the insolvency of the FDIC and an attempt to bail out bank bondholders using funds that have not even been allocated by Congress. The whole plan is a bureaucratic abuse of the FDIC's balance sheet, which exists to protect ordinary depositors, not bank bondholders.
On Thursday, the stock market cheered a move by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) to relax FAS-157 (the "mark-to-market" accounting rule), allowing nearly insolvent financial companies to use more discretion in the models they use to assess fair value. Of course, the irresponsibly rosy assumptions built into these models have been a large contributor to this near-insolvency, because they virtually ignored foreclosure risks.Notably, the one thing policy-makers have not done is to address foreclosure abatement in any serious way. The only way to get through this crisis without enormous collateral damage to ordinary Americans is by restructuring mortgage obligations (ideally using property appreciation rights), restructuring the debt obligations of distressed financial companies (ideally by requiring bondholders to swap a portion of their debt for equity), and abandoning the idea of using public funds to purchase un-restructurable mortgage debt ("toxic assets").
Look. You can play hot potato with the toxic assets all day long, and only outcome will be that the public will suffer the losses that would otherwise have been properly taken by the banks' own bondholders. You can tinker with the accounting rules all you want, and it won't make the banks solvent. It may improve "reported" earnings for a spell, but as investors who care about the stream of future cash flows that will actually be delivered to us over time, it is clear that modifying the accounting rules doesn't create value. It simply increases the likelihood that financial institutions will quietly go insolvent. I recognize that the accounting changes may reduce the immediate need for regulatory action, since banks will be able to pad their Tier 1 capital with false hope. But we have done nothing to abate foreclosures, and we are just about to begin a huge reset cycle for Alt-A's and option-ARMs. As the underlying mortgages go into foreclosure, it will ultimately become impossible to argue that the toxic assets would be worth much even in an "orderly transaction."
Meanwhile, in a bizarre convolution of reality reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, the Financial Times reported last week: "US banks that have received government aid, including Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase, are considering buying toxic assets to be sold by rivals under the Treasury's $1,000bn plan to revive the financial system." And why not? They can put up a few percent of their own money, and swap each other's toxic assets financed by a bewildered public suddenly bearing more than 90% of the downside risk. The "investors" in this happy "public-private partnership" keep half the upside while ordinary Americans take the downside off of their hands. Some partnership.