Krugman Gives Free Seminar On Bank Plan: It Sucks

Maybe, after Tim Geithner resigns, Paul Krugman will be asked to run the treasury? One can hope, can't one?
More on the bank plan

Why was I so quick to condemn the Geithner plan? Because it’s not new; it’s just another version of an idea that keeps coming up and keeps being refuted. It’s basically a thinly disguised version of the same plan Henry Paulson announced way back in September. To understand the issue, let me offer some background.

Start with the question: how do banks fail? A bank, broadly defined, is any institution that borrows short and lends long. Like any leveraged investor, a bank can fail if it has made bad investments — if the value of its assets falls below the value of its liabilities, bye bye bank.

But banks can also fail even if they haven’t been bad investors: if, for some reason, many of those they’ve borrowed from (e.g., but not only, depositors) demand their money back at once, the bank can be forced to sell assets at fire sale prices, so that assets that would have been worth more than liabilities in normal conditions end up not being enough to cover the bank’s debts. And this opens up the possibility of a self-fulfilling panic: people may demand their money back, not because they think the bank has made bad investments, but simply because they think other people will demand their money back.

Bank runs can be contagious; partly that’s for psychological reasons, partly because banks tend to invest in similar assets, so one bank’s fire sale depresses another bank’s net worth.

So now we have a bank crisis. Is it the result of fundamentally bad investment, or is it because of a self-fulfilling panic?

If you think it’s just a panic, then the government can pull a magic trick: by stepping in to buy the assets banks are selling, it can make banks look solvent again, and end the run. Yippee! And sometimes that really does work.

But if you think that the banks really, really have made lousy investments, this won’t work at all; it will simply be a waste of taxpayer money. To keep the banks operating, you need to provide a real backstop — you need to guarantee their debts, and seize ownership of those banks that don’t have enough assets to cover their debts; that’s the Swedish solution, it’s what we eventually did with our own S&Ls.

Now, early on in this crisis, it was possible to argue that it was mainly a panic. But at this point, that’s an indefensible position. Banks and other highly leveraged institutions collectively made a huge bet that the normal rules for house prices and sustainable levels of consumer debt no longer applied; they were wrong. Time for a Swedish solution.

But Treasury is still clinging to the idea that this is just a panic attack, and that all it needs to do is calm the markets by buying up a bunch of troubled assets. Actually, that’s not quite it: the Obama administration has apparently made the judgment that there would be a public outcry if it announced a straightforward plan along these lines, so it has produced what Yves Smith calls “a lot of bells and whistles to finesse the fact that the government will wind up paying well above market for [I don't think I can finish this on a Times blog]”

Why am I so vehement about this? Because I’m afraid that this will be the administration’s only shot — that if the first bank plan is an abject failure, it won’t have the political capital for a second. So it’s just horrifying that Obama — and yes, the buck stops there — has decided to base his financial plan on the fantasy that a bit of financial hocus-pocus will turn the clock back to 2006.

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