Economists finally discover what this blog long ago called the Geithner plan's biggest problem

18 days ago, I laid out the real problem with the Geithner plan. Ever since, I’ve been waiting to read that someone else figured this out too. I can’t believe it took so long, but economist Jeffrey Sachs today laid out the logic I spelled out 18 days ago:

The situation is even potentially more disastrous than we wrote. 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.

Paul Krugman agrees “his worries need to be taken seriously”:

I was starting to come to the conclusion that the plan would simply fizzle — that even though participating players would get a large put along with their free toaster, it wouldn’t be enough to raise the price they’re willing to pay to a level banks would be willing to sell at, rather than keep assets on the books at far above their true value. But once you take into account the possibility of insider deals, that all changes. As Jeff says, a bank can create an off-balance-sheet entity that buys bad assets for far more than they’re worth, using money borrowed from taxpayers, then defaults — in effect a straight transfer from taxpayers to stockholders.

Posted by James on Wednesday, April 08, 2009