By William H. Gross
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Capitalism is a delicate balance between production and finance. Today, our seemingly guaranteed living standard is threatened, much like it has been in previous recessions or, some would say, the Depression. Finance has run amok because of oversecuritization, poor regulation and the excessively exuberant spirits of investors; the delicate balance has once again been disrupted; production, and with it jobs and our national standard of living, is declining.
If this were a textbook recession, policy prescriptions would recommend two aspirin and bed rest -- a healthy dose of interest rate cuts and a fiscal package that mildly expanded the deficit. That, of course, has been the attempted remedy over the past 12 months. But recent events have made it apparent that this downturn differs from recessions past. Today's housing bubble, unlike that of the stock market's before it, was financed with excessive and poorly regulated mortgage debt, and as housing prices began to tumble from the peak, the delinquencies and foreclosures have led to a downward spiral of debt liquidation that in turn led to even lower prices and more foreclosures.
And so, instead of mild medication and rest, it became apparent that quadruple bypass surgery is necessary. The extreme measures are extended government guarantees and the formation of an RTC-like holding company housed within the Treasury. Critics call this a bailout of Wall Street; in fact, it is anything but. I estimate the average price of distressed mortgages that pass from "troubled financial institutions" to the Treasury at auction will be 65 cents on the dollar, representing a loss of one-third of the original purchase price to the seller, and a prospective yield of 10 to 15 percent to the Treasury. Financed at 3 to 4 percent via the sale of Treasury bonds, the Treasury will therefore be in a position to earn a positive carry or yield spread of at least 7 to 8 percent. Calls for appropriate oversight of this auction process are more than justified. There are disinterested firms, some not even based on Wall Street, with the expertise to evaluate these complicated pools of mortgages and other assets to assure taxpayers that their money is being wisely invested. My estimate of double-digit returns assumes lengthy ownership of the assets and is in turn dependent on the level of home foreclosures, but this program is, in fact, directed to prevent just that.
In effect, the Treasury will have the fate of the American taxpayer in its hands. The Resolution Trust Corp., created in the late 1980s to deal with the savings and loan crisis, dealt with previously purchased real estate, which was flushed into government hands with a "best efforts" future liquidation. Today, the purchase of junk mortgages, securitized credit card receivables and even student loans will be bought at prices significantly below "par" or cost, and prospectively at levels allowing for capital gains. This is a Wall Street-friendly package only to the extent that it frees up funds for future loans and economic growth. Politicians afraid of parallels to legislation that enabled the Iraq war are raising concerns about a rush to judgment, but the need for speed is clear. In this case, there really are weapons of mass destruction -- financial derivatives -- that threaten to destroy our system from within. Move quickly, Washington, with appropriate safeguards.
The Treasury proposal will not be a bailout of Wall Street but a rescue of Main Street, as lending capacity and confidence is restored to our banks and the delicate balance between production and finance is given a chance to work its magic. Democratic Party earmarks mandating forbearance on home mortgage foreclosures will be critical as well. If this program is successful, however, it is obvious that the free market and Wild West capitalism of recent decades will be forever changed. Future economic textbooks are likely to teach that while capitalism is the most dynamic and productive system ever conceived, it is most efficient over the long term when there is another delicate balance -- between private incentive and government oversight.
The writer is chief investment officer and founder of the investment management firm PIMCO.