Nobel Economist Stiglitz Calls Geithner Bank Plan “Ersatz Capitalism”

A number of economists, including Paul Krugman, have panned Timothy Geithner’s plan to recapitalize banks by buying toxic assets in a complex and highly leveraged way that puts the taxpayer’s dollars at risk.

Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel economist, has piled on. In fact, his is probably the most damning opinion I’ve seen. Stiglitz says that first of all, Geithner has analyzed the problem incorrectly. Geithner keeps telling us it is a “liquidity” problem. Stiglitz says “poppycock”:

The main problem is not a lack of liquidity. If it were, then a far simpler program would work: just provide the funds without loan guarantees. The real issue is that the banks made bad loans in a bubble and were highly leveraged. They have lost their capital, and this capital has to be replaced.

What he means is their “capital”, or assets are in worthless loans. Yes that’s right – worthless. So, as he points out, paying “fair market value” for these assets won’t work, will it? They’re worthless.

So what does Geithner propose?

Only by overpaying for the assets will the banks be adequately recapitalized. But overpaying for the assets simply shifts the losses to the government. In other words, the Geithner plan works only if and when the taxpayer loses big time.

Stiglitz explains the proposed process very well, demonstrating it fairly simple and straightforward examples how the taxpayer takes the majority of the risk, and, given the nature off the “assets”, will absorb the majority of the losses.

But Americans are likely to lose even more than these calculations suggest, because of an effect called adverse selection. The banks get to choose the loans and securities that they want to sell. They will want to sell the worst assets, and especially the assets that they think the market overestimates (and thus is willing to pay too much for).

But the market is likely to recognize this, which will drive down the price that it is willing to pay. Only the government’s picking up enough of the losses overcomes this “adverse selection” effect. With the government absorbing the losses, the market doesn’t care if the banks are “cheating” them by selling their lousiest assets, because the government bears the cost.

That is a process driven problem. The Geithner process guarantees the outcome because that is the most likely outcome, banks not being stupid and with the government bearing the cost.

Bottom line – taxpayers are going to get hosed and hosed good.

Stiglitz provides an interesting alternative which gives you an idea of how poorly he regards Geithner’s plan:

Some Americans are afraid that the government might temporarily “nationalize” the banks, but that option would be preferable to the Geithner plan. After all, the F.D.I.C. has taken control of failing banks before, and done it well.

Given only those two option, I’d say Stiglitz has a point.

Of course, the argument we’ve made since day one is we ought to let them go bust, get it over with and begin the recovery. That’s the same argument we made concerning GM and Chrysler.

Instead we’ve gotten these insane plans driven by the administration which has thrown literally trillions of good dollars after bad – and to no apparent avail.

The madness has got to stop.

[Crossposted at QandO]

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