By Binyamin Appelbaum and David Cho
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
The Obama administration's emerging rescue plan for the banking system would amount to financial triage, with the Treasury Department playing the delicate role of deciding which of the trillions of dollars in troubled assets plaguing the economy to buy, guarantee or leave in the hands of banks, sources said.
The high-stakes approach would dramatically increase the investment of taxpayer money in the financial industry, and the potential losses. The plan, which Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner is set to announce Monday, is being crafted under tremendous political pressure from people who say the government is risking too much as well as from those who say it is not doing enough to end the crisis.
Facing public anger over the rescue of firms many people blame for causing a recession, the Obama administration is focused on producing a plan that is not just effective but also politically palatable, sources said.
Today, the administration is planning to announce tougher restrictions on compensation at companies that need massive government assistance to survive, including a $500,000 cap on executive pay. That move may not appease critics, because, sources said, most firms that get federal aid would not face severe pay conditions.
The basic problem confronting the government is that banks hold large quantities of assets that they value on their books for much more than investors are willing to pay. Banks cannot sell these assets without recording massive losses. But holding the assets is tying up vast amounts of money, choking the financial system.
Since the early days of the financial crisis, officials have struggled to unwind that knot. If the government buys the assets at prices that banks consider fair, the Treasury would take a huge loss when it ultimately sells the assets for much less. If, instead, the government insists on paying market prices, the banks may not survive their losses.
Instead of taking a single approach, the Obama administration plans to divide assets and other loans into three categories, each with its own solution, according to sources familiar with the discussions, speaking on condition of anonymity because the details are not finalized.
The government would buy and hold on to those assets whose falling prices are putting banks under the most pressure. Officials want to limit these purchases because of the vast expense.
The centerpiece of the plan would be a guarantee to limit losses on a second group of troubled assets that can be kept by the banks because they have more stable prices.
And it would allow banks to retain and profit from their healthiest assets.
Beyond these initiatives, the government also is likely to inject more capital into troubled institutions.
The triage approach is a response to accounting rules.
When banks buy assets such as loans, they must specify for accounting purposes whether they plan to hold the asset until it is repaid in full or whether they might sell the asset earlier. If the price of similar assets begins to fall, banks may be required to record a loss in value. Those rules apply much more strictly to assets that a bank has said it may sell.
As a result, the recorded value of such "available for sale" assets has declined much more sharply in comparison with assets "held to maturity." Two identical loans, one placed in each category, would now carry different values for accounting purposes.
The government plans to focus on buying assets "available for sale" -- those assets whose values banks have already written down substantially, sources said. Such assets are causing immediate problems for banks because they must set aside substantial amounts of capital to compensate for the losses recorded on their books.
Assets "held to maturity" would remain with the companies, but the government would guarantee to limit any losses.
Allowing institutions to hold those assets rather than selling them to the government would avoid a moment of reckoning because the banks will also be able to avoid acknowledging on their books the sharp declines in market prices. Government officials argue the approach is better for banks and taxpayers because the price of many assets will eventually recover after the financial crisis passes, so there is no value in forcing the banks to record losses.
But many financial experts say that market prices deserve more respect. They argue that many assets are unlikely to recover much of their value and that the government would simply be postponing the day when banks must record losses.
Joshua Rosner, a financial analyst at Graham Fisher, said in a recent research note that it makes no sense to accept the prices banks have assigned to assets as more accurate than the prices assigned by investors in the marketplace.
"I would argue that it is a thinly veiled attempt to prevent losses from being recognized and which will result in larger levels of ultimate losses," he wrote.
Investors have been unimpressed by the government's first forays into asset guarantees.
In November, the government agreed to limit Citigroup's losses on a portfolio of $301 billion of troubled assets. Last month, the government issued a similar guarantee to Bank of America covering $118 billion in troubled assets. In both cases, the companies agreed to absorb an initial increment of losses -- about $30 billion for Citigroup and $10 billion for Bank of America -- with the government absorbing 90 percent of any subsequent losses.
Even after the guarantees, however, both companies' stock prices continue to trade near historic lows. Financial analysts say that investors remain uncertain about the extent of the companies' financial problems because the government has not disclosed which assets it guaranteed, or at what prices. "It's a lack of confidence because of a lack of capital," Paul Miller, a banking analyst at Friedman, Billings and Ramsey said. "Until you get that capital in, you're going to be going from crisis to crisis to crisis."
To address public anger over the bailout, White House officials are set to detail today the restrictions that would be imposed on financial firms receiving what the government deems to be "exceptional" assistance. A minority of recipients would fall into this category.
Such companies would be required to cap their executives' pay at $500,000, a source said. Any compensation above that limit could come only in the form of restricted stock that cannot be sold until the government has been repaid. Dividend payments would be restricted to a penny. These institutions would also be banned from using federal aid to buy other firms.
But companies receiving less than "exceptional assistance" are unlikely to face such severe conditions, largely because administration officials are concerned they would not participate in any of the government programs that are intended to promote bank lending.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the dual standards make sense. But he understands the anger of ordinary Americans against the program.
"The average person is furious about this because they could say, 'I go to my job and don't mess up and yet I'm losing my health benefits and being put on furlough. Yet these guys did something wrong, why aren't they being asked to sacrifice?'" he said. "Right now every financial institution, particularly those that are getting assistance, has to be sensitive that it's a new world."