Jeffrey Sachs, at the Huffington Post, explains that the Geithner-Summers toxic asset plan will allow banks selling such assets to bid on the same kind of assets being sold by other banks, setting up the opportunity for massive wealth transfers from the Treasury to the banks involved.
Insiders can easily game the system created by Geithner and Summers to cost up to a trillion dollars or more to the taxpayers.
Here’s how. Consider a toxic asset held by Citibank with a face value of $1 million, but with zero probability of any payout and therefore with a zero market value. An outside bidder would not pay anything for such an asset. All of the previous articles consider the case of true outside bidders.
Suppose, however, that Citibank itself sets up a Citibank Public-Private Investment Fund (CPPIF) under the Geithner-Summers plan. The CPPIF will bid the full face value of $1 million for the worthless asset, because it can borrow $850K from the FDIC, and get $75K from the Treasury, to make the purchase! Citibank will only have to put in $75K of the total.
Citibank thereby receives $1 million for the worthless asset, while the CPPIF ends up with an utterly worthless asset against $850K in debt to the FDIC. The CPPIF therefore quietly declares bankruptcy, while Citibank walks away with a cool $1 million. Citibank’s net profit on the transaction is $925K (remember that the bank invested $75K in the CPPIF) and the taxpayers lose $925K. Since the total of toxic assets in the banking system exceeds $1 trillion, and perhaps reaches $2-3 trillion, the amount of potential rip-off in the Geithner-Summers plan is unconscionably large.
The earlier criticisms of the Geithner-Summers plan showed that even outside bidders generally have the incentive to bid far too much for the toxic assets, since they too get a free ride from the government loans. But once we acknowledge the insider-bidding route, the potential to game the plan at the cost of the taxpayers becomes extraordinary. And the gaming of the system doesn’t have to be as crude as Citibank setting up its own CPPIF. There are lots of ways that it can do this indirectly, for example, buying assets of other banks which in turn buy Citi’s assets. Or other stakeholders in Citi, such as groups of bondholders and shareholders, could do the same.
Mike Rorty explains further:
I was out at â€œDebaser Nightâ€, a 90s-music dance party in San Francisco, with some friends. A riot grrl rock cover band opened, followed by lots of great singles. I was getting a bit nostalgic. A friend of mine, who used to be on an energy trading desk back in the early 2000s, was listening to me talk about the government plan. He couldnâ€™t believe what I was telling him about letting the banks that are selling auctions also bid on them. In the middle of my explanation, he had his own wave of nostalgia: â€œMan does that bring back memoriesâ€¦.â€ …
[W]hy did my energy trading friend get all nostalgic? â€œBecause what you are telling me brings back some great memories from what Enron was up to back in the day. All of us energy traders back then watched with our jaws on the floor. 2000 was a hell of a year.â€
It is August, 2000. Letâ€™s say you are a trader for Enron. You know your energy in California is worth $50, and you also know the energy that Reliant Energy has is worth $50. You call your buddy up, the trader at Reliant, and make a deal. Happens all the time – you even have a nickname for it, The Daisy Chain Swap. You go to bid, and you bid $80 for Reliantâ€™s energy. Then you wait. If Reliant doesnâ€™t come through, you are screwed out a lot of money. And hey, isnâ€™t this wrong? Well, you are pretty sure one of those Rubin-protÃ©gÃ© government whiz-kids has given someone who knows someone you know a wink-wink about this. You take a drink, steady the nerves. Then, the bid comes back for your energy – $80 from Reliant. You have each bid up each others assets and traded them. And now the government is screwed, because it has to pay you $80. …
What is really exciting, from the evil point of view, is the idea that we are going to get to see one giant, massive, Enron Death Star put into play.
The Death Star strategy (yes, they called it that) was where Enron would take a fee for relieving a congested market of its excess supply by moving it elsewhere. Just like our legacy assets! There are too many of them, it is clogging up trade, letâ€™s get them to someone else who wants them. However Enron would just move the energy in a circle, collecting a fee for not doing what it was supposed to. As their memo famously said, they are paid â€œfor moving energy to relieve congestion, without actually moving any energy or relieving any congestion.â€ And, it appears, that the large banks are gearing up to do just that; with the Geitner Death Star that theyâ€™ll just be collecting a large fee to run them in a circle, without actually moving any of them off their collective books. …
Mind you that was the electrical grid of California – this appears to be at the scale of the entire financial market. In case you are wondering, traders out there are licking their lips to try and find ways to game this even better than Enron.
See? Obama is really an equal opportunity redistributionist. He’s not only redistributing taxpayer monies to ACORN and the dÃ©soeuvrÃ©; he’s redistributing to the bankers, too.
Hat tip to Daniel Lowenstein