Note: I wrote this post on May 18 but somehow forgot to publish it; I just found it in my drafts. It’s a bit out of date, but I think the point still stands.
I’m not sure if it’s official, but it’s been widely rumored that large banks that want to repay their TARP money will have to be able to sell new debt without the FDIC guarantee they got back in October. As a result, banks are falling over themselves with new, non-guaranteed debt offerings. The idea, I guess, is that banks that can raise money without the guarantee are showing that they are sound enough to operate without government support.
But I think all we’ve done is replace an explicit guarantee with an implicit guarantee. In October, no one was sure whether the U.S. government would bail out bank creditors in a pinch; after all, Lehman creditors got back less than 10 cents on the dollar, and AIG creditors took a big haircut because the Fed’s credit line came in senior to them. So the explicit guarantee was necessary for banks to issue debt.
Since then, however, the government has shown in many ways that it isn’t going to let major banks fail or force a restructuring (indeed, it insists that it can’t force a restructuring). The message of the stress tests, ultimately, was that Treasury is standing by to provide whatever capital is needed. In that situation, what risk do bank creditors face? Virtually none, except maybe political risk (the risk that the government’s policy will change). So the banks get to raise money without the stigma of a guarantee, they don’t have to pay a premium to the FDIC, then they get to pay back their TARP money, and the government can say that the banking sector is healthy. Everyone’s happy.
And if things go badly, the taxpayer is still there to make good on all those non-guaranteed bonds – at least for the banks that are, still, too big to fail.
By James Kwak