Paulson Plan Shows A Weakness: Above Market Pricing, Greater Taxpayer Risk

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One of the aspects of the Paulson bailout bill that was not clear until today is that the Treasury has no intention of running a true action for the toxic assets on bank balance sheets. An auction would tend to set very low prices on the current value of mortgage-backed paper. Based on the few transactions which have taken place in the past, this might be as low as 30 cents on a dollar.

It has been widely assumed that banks would need to take large write-downs on the devalued assets, creating the need for them to raise more capital and further dilute shareholders.

All of those assumptions were mistaken.

In testimony today, Ben Bernanke described the plan by saying "it is designed to avoid forcing banks to sell or value their mortgage assets at a `fire-sale’ price. In a harsher tone than he has ever used in testimony, Bernanke spelled out the benefits that would accrue when the government can buy these mortgage assets at close to "hold to maturity" prices instead of the "fire-sale price."

The plan puts taxpayers at a substantially greater risk than a true auction system. Buying these toxic assets inexpensively gives the Treasury a chance to profit from its risk if the paper appreciates in value over time, providing taxpayers some "upside" . The more that assets appreciate, the better the chance that the American public’s long-term liability is low.

What has become clear is that Treasury plans to purchase bad assets from banks at prices very near their original value. The risk to taxpayers under this program would be tremendous. If housing prices continue to fall, so will the value of the paper the government has purchased. Under this set of circumstances the public could be at risk for underwriting the great majority of the Treasury’s purchases and never having a chance to recoup their investment.

Buying troubled bank assets at above where they would be valued in a free market now and at a price which is near to the potential price when they mature is a great handout to the banks but undermines almost any chance that the Treasury will ever get any meaningful yield from the bailout.

Taxpayers lose any chance of being made whole

Douglas A. McIntyre

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