In an effort to market the loans, securities and real estate it has inherited from failed savings and loan institutions, the government decided yesterday to offer financing on $71 billion in assets it now holds.
Everything from shopping centers to high-risk, high-yield junk bonds will be available for purchase under the new program, referred to as seller financing. Only a few months ago the move likely would have been greeted with widespread skepticism but officials now say they believe the program is necessary because of the continuing deterioration of the economy.
The decision was made by the Cabinet-level board that oversees the Resolution Trust Corp., the agency charged with disposing of failed thrifts and paying off depositors. The move was prompted by economic conditions that have all but stalled the thrift cleanup, and represents a major shift in strategy for an agency that originally planned to offer financing sparingly.
The RTC oversight board, whose members include Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and Jack Kemp, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, voted unanimously in favor of the plan. Agency officials will be given wide latitude in negotiating deals with interested buyers.
In an attempt to limit taxpayer exposure, the agency hopes it can sell the loans at a discount to investors. In addition, it will make available only $7 billion for the program at any given time, replenishing this fund as the loans are sold.
The overall economic downturn and crumbling real estate markets have made it extremely tough for the RTC to sell its assets, many of which were of questionable value to begin with.
Many would-be buyers have been unable to obtain loans from banks, which have been tightening their credit requirements and already have enough problem loans on their books.
Oversight Board President Peter Monroe said that while there are some risks inherent in seller financing, the effort is intended to spur sales and allow the government to recoup some of its losses.
"The RTC already has the risk. We've already put the money out," he said. "We're trying to recover as much as we can."
The RTC has been under increasing pressure from Congress to get sales moving despite the unfavorable economy.
This week, several members of the House Banking Committee said they want to write legislation that will link the funding for the RTC to its sales performance.
The new seller-financing program was sought by agency officials as well as many in the real estate industry.
"This is a very clear ... step in the right direction," said Kent Colton, executive vice president of the National Association of Home Builders. "It's a step in the right direction in helping the marketplace to get moving again."
Robert Litan, an economist with the Brookings Institution, said RTC officials have their backs to the wall. "They are desperate for cash, they've got to do something," he said.
But the news was not universally welcomed. Some, including Rep. Bruce Vento (D-Minn.), chairman of a congressional RTC oversight task force, have said the government should insist on cash sales, take its losses and get out of the S&L mess as quickly as possible. The government could get stuck with the assets a second time if buyers default, he noted.
"There are some very obvious risks. This could well push the problems into the future," said Vento, adding that in his opinion, the Bush administration is concerned with "insulating" itself from losses through the 1992 election.
"They weren't going to do any of this," he said. "This is a tremendous risk for the taxpayer. This is really turning the RTC into a bank."
That is something even supporters of the plan acknowledge. "The purists would argue they shouldn't do this, they shouldn't be in the banking business," said Litan. "The problem is, no one else is in the banking business."
In the past, the RTC had $1 billion in financing available for buyers, but only about $50 million of it had been used as of Sept. 30, mostly because of a requirement that the loans be salable into the secondary market within a year.
In October, the oversight board lifted the restriction and increased the amount available to $1.25 billion.
Half of the RTC's $142.2 billion in holdings will qualify for government loans under the expanded seller financing program.
The holdings include $16.7 billion in real estate, $17.1 billion in delinquent mortgages, as well some performing loans and securities such as junk bonds.
As a general rule, the RTC will seek down payments of at least 15 percent.
But agency officials can accept smaller down payments if buyers put money into an escrow account for property improvement, for example, or if the government has some recourse in collecting from the buyer in the event the loan is not repaid.
Each time it agrees to finance a purchase, the RTC must first determine that the item is not otherwise marketable due to a lack of commercial financing.
Then, it will have to do an analysis that shows seller financing would bring the government more money than it could get by slashing the price and selling for cash, by holding the property until the market improves, or by packaging the item with other assets and converting it into a security that could be sold in the financial markets.