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U.S. to Help Investors Buy Bank Assets

The Obama administration on Monday launched its much-awaited assault on the worst U.S. banking crisis in 70 years, billions of federal dollars to thaw the nation's frozen credit markets and ease the economy out of recession. Video by AP

Geithner and his colleagues at the Treasury Department have been trying to design a program that achieves several objectives: giving private investors plenty of incentive to buy the distressed assets, getting banks to willingly sell these assets and protecting taxpayers from unreasonable risk.

Treasury officials made changes to the plan in recent days in a way that makes it more favorable to private investors, according to government and industry sources. For instance, on Saturday, the draft plan called for the Treasury to put in four times as much equity as private investors, which would give taxpayers a greater windfall if the banking system recovers and the investments become profitable. But Treasury officials surrendered some of those potential gains after listening to the concerns of hedge funds and private-equity funds on Sunday, industry officials said.

The Treasury increased private investors' share of potential profits from 20 percent to 50 percent. A senior official at the department said it was not because the Treasury wanted to make the deal better for the investors but because it wanted to send a consistent message that the government would take the same stake as the private sector across all rescue programs. A smaller Treasury stake also means less risk for taxpayers, the official said.

The response from major investors yesterday was strongly supportive. Bill Gross, co-chief investment officer of Pimco, the nation's largest bond investor, said his firm is eager to participate and that the program is a "win-win-win" policy that "should be welcomed enthusiastically."

Some analysts and senior government officials fear that taxpayers may be giving up too much -- including potential double-digit-percentage returns -- to the investors.

"We are giving the private side a certain package that could well be much more than is necessary to get them, in which case the taxpayers are leaving a lot of money on the table," said Lucian Bebchuk, a Harvard Law School professor who was an early advocate of the government's approach.

"If this is profitable, and I think it will be very profitable, you're giving more profit to private investors," added FDIC Chairman Sheila C. Bair.

Another challenge comes from the banks. Many bankers said they believe their loans and securities are worth far more than current market prices would suggest. They say privately that current prices reflect an overly negative prognosis for the economy. Banks are also worried about the losses they would incur if forced to accept short-term prices for loans that are being held until maturity.

Bair said she cannot guarantee that banks will participate in the program, even though regulators may put pressure on them to do so.

Geithner needed the announcement to go well after facing one of the worst weeks in his young tenure as Treasury secretary, largely because of the furor over the AIG bonuses. Treasury officials had considered delaying the announcement of the program until that controversy blew over, sources familiar with the matter said. But they ultimately decided that the toxic-asset program was too important to delay, the sources said.

Then administration officials tried to lower expectations when talking to the media. The announcement was simplified and pared back, sources said. Originally, for instance, some staffers had urged that the department also provide a public update on the stress test being conducted on banks. This was dropped from the announcement.

Republican members of Congress expressed some skepticism of the bank bailout plan yesterday, though Democratic leaders were more supportive.

"I think it's as good as we can do now," Frank said. "Solutions cannot be qualitatively more elegant than the problems they are aimed at, given where we are and the various constraints."

Staff writer Binyamin Appelbaum contributed to this report.

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