Gaming the PPIP?

By James Kwak

A couple of weeks ago, Yves Smith picked up on the story that the TARP Special Inspector General is investigating suspicious trades in connection with the Public-Private Investment Program. When PPIP was announced almost a year ago, there was widespread speculation about how banks and other private investors could take advantage of the program to unload toxic securities onto taxpayers (technically speaking, onto investment funds containing some private money, some public money, and a lot of non-recourse financing from the government). That story more or less faded away because PPIP never really amounted to much; banks apparently decided they were better off sitting on their toxic assets, counting on favorable accounting rules and regulatory forbearance, instead of selling them.

Here’s the relevant section from the SIG-TARP report (p. 141):

“The PPIF management company in question operates both a PPIF and one or more non-PPIF funds that invest in similar securities (i.e., mortgage-backed securities (‘MBS’)). In the case of this fund management company, the same person is the portfolio manager for both the PPIF and the non-PPIF fund. In late October, the portfolio manager directed that a particular MBS from the non-PPIF fund be sold after the security — in this case a residential MBS — had been downgraded by a rating agency. According to the company, multiple bids were received, and a quantity of the security was sold to a dealer. Within minutes of the sale, however, the same portfolio manager purchased, for the PPIF, the same amount of the same security from the dealer at a slightly higher price. Later in the day, the portfolio manager bought more of the security for the PPIF from the dealer at the original price.

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Buffett and Geithner

Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail sure is a page-turner; even for events that I already knew about in general, it’s full of new details and juicy quotations.

For example, on page 508 it lays out the details of Warren Buffett’s October 2008 proposal for a “Public-Private Partnership Fund,” which would eventually become the PPIP announced by Tim Geithner in March 2009.  I knew that Buffett, Bill Gross, and Lloyd Blankfein had supported the idea, but I didn’t know the details. Buffett’s idea was slightly different from the eventual PPIP.

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Cash for Trash: Better Never than Late

The following guest post was written by Linus Wilson, a finance professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, the media’s go-to guy on calculating the value of transactions between the government and the banks, and an occasional commenter on this blog. Linus also analyzes government-bank transactions at Seeking Alpha.

The U.S. government does few thing better than create debt.  After a year of talking about it, the government is going to have the chance to throw their good debt, Treasury bills notes and bonds, after bad, non-performing toxic loans and securities.  The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the U.S. Treasury are going their separate ways on their cash for trash schemes at this point.  Accountants and investors should be wary of the big prices they see coming from the FDIC’s auctions, but taxpayers should be afraid of the U.S. Treasury’s efforts to re-inflate the securitization bubble.

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Legacy Loan Program Called Off

New York Times:

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation indefinitely postponed a central element of the Obama administration’s bank rescue plan on Wednesday, acknowledging that it could not persuade enough banks to sell off their bad assets. . . .

Many banks have refused to sell their loans, in part because doing so would force them to mark down the value of those loans and book big losses. Even though the government was prepared to prop up prices by offering cheap financing to investors, the prices that banks were demanding have remained far higher than the prices that investors were willing to pay.

I don’t think I’ve ever done this before, but . . . Simon and I, March 24:

The problem in the market today is that the prices demanded by the banks are much higher than the prices that private buyers (hedge funds, private equity firms, sovereign wealth funds) are willing to pay. The government has no way to bring down the banks’ minimum sale prices . . .

The subsidy may not be sweet enough to close the deal. According to one analysis, a specific mortgage-backed security was held on a bank’s books at 97 cents, while its market price was about 38 cents. Even if you limit the buyer’s potential loss to the capital he put in, it’s unlikely he will raise his bid from 38 cents to anything near 97 cents. . . .

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Sheila Bair Listens to Me

Yesterday I said that Tim Geithner or Sheila Bair should come out and slap down the idea that banks will be allowed to bid on their own assets. And today she did! Rolfe Winkler, in a guest post at naked capitalism, did the hard work transcribing the audio of the press conference. 

Although banks cannot buy their own assets, Bair did say, “I think there have been separate issues about whether banks can be buyers on other bank assets and I think that’s an issue that we continue to look at.” As I said yesterday, and as Winkler also said, I think this is also a bad idea. Even if you successfully deter outright collusion, you can still have outcomes where the industry as a whole is using subsidies to overpay for its own assets and shift the loss onto the government.

And no, I don’t actually think that Sheila Bair reads this blog, much less listens to what I have to say.

By James Kwak

Banks Want Government Subsidies to Buy Assets from Themselves

From the headlines of the Wall Street Journal: “Banks Aiming to Play Both Sides of Coin — Industry Lobbies FDIC to Let Some Buy Toxic Assets With Taypayer Aid From Own Loan Books (subscription required, but Calculated Risk has an excerpt). I thought the headline had to be a mistake until I read the article.

To recap: The Public-Private Investment Program provides subsidies to private investors to encourage them to buy legacy loans from banks. The goal is to encourage buyers to bid more than they are currently willing to pay, and hopefully close the gap with the prices at which the banks are willing to sell.

Allowing banks to buy their own assets under the PPIP is a terrible idea. In short, it allows a bank to sell half of its toxic loans to Treasury – at a price set by the bank. I’ll take this in steps.

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Geithner Plan vs. Paulson Plan

Dennis Snower works out the arithmetic behind the Public-Private Investment Program and shows something that we’ve suspected: if the assets are really toxic (the gap between book value and long-term expected value is big), the subsidy just isn’t big enough. He also shows that if the assets are only a little toxic, the government subsidy induces private sector bidders to overbid, making the subsidy bigger than it needs to be.

Snower’s hypothetical asset has an expected value of $50. According to his calculations:

  • If the bank has it on its books at $70, the private sector will bid it up to $85 because of the government subsidy. The government would have been better off under the original Paulson Plan (just buy it off the bank at book value, in this case $70).
  • If the bank has it on its books above $85, the private sector will not buy it at all and the plan will do nothing.

Now, his asset has different characteristics than the assets out there in the real world, whose expected values are not knowable, let alone known. That may change the analysis, but I doubt it changes the ultimate result.

Thanks to the reader who recommended this.

By James Kwak

The Importance of Battlefield Nuclear Weapons

I’ve been writing a lot about the game of chicken recently, most often in connection with the GM and Chrysler bailouts. On the Chrysler front, the game is in its last hours. Even after a consortium of large banks agreed to the proposed debt-for-equity swap, some smaller hedge funds are holding out for more money, and even the extra $250 million that Treasury agreed to kick in seems unlikely to keep Chrysler out of bankruptcy.

The problem is that bankruptcy is the only weapon Chrysler and Treasury have in this fight, and it’s a strategic nuclear weapon. Bankruptcy is the only threat that can get the bondholders to agree to a swap; but because a bankruptcy carries some risk of destroying Chrysler (because control will lie in the hands of a bankruptcy judge – not Chrysler, Treasury, the UAW, or Fiat), and taking hundreds of thousands of jobs with it, everyone knows that Treasury would prefer not to use it. The bondholders are betting that they can use Treasury’s fear of a bankruptcy to extract better terms at the last minute. (And it’s even possible that the large banks agreed to the swap knowing they could count on the smaller, less politically exposed hedge funds to veto it.) But Treasury may still press the button, because it needs to make a statement in advance of the bigger GM confrontation scheduled for a month from now.

But there’s a much bigger, slower game going on at the same time, and the administration’s basic problem is the same: all it has is strategic nuclear weapons that it absolutely does not want to use. The New York Times had an article today about how “a growing number of banks are resisting the Obama administration’s proposals for fixing the financial system.”  It didn’t have a lot of new information, but it summarized the outlines of the game.

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