Obama Administration Embraces High-Stakes Bailout

President Barack Obama on Wednesday imposed $500,000 caps on senior executive pay for the most distressed financial institutions receiving federal bailout money. Video by AP
By Binyamin Appelbaum and David Cho
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 4, 2009; 11:47 AM

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.

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 might be required to record a loss in value. Those rules apply much more strictly to assets that a bank has said it might sell.

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