The Banks Are Alright; Time to End the Bailouts

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Dean Baker
The Guardian Unlimited, May 11, 2009

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Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told the country last week that the banks are essentially okay based on his stress tests of the country’s 19th largest banks. Secretary Geithner’s call may not seem quite right. After all, the bad case in stress tests assumed that unemployment would average 8.9 percent for all of 2009 and we just hit that last week, but there’s no reason not to take the Treasury secretary at his word.

So, we are told that the banks have the means necessary to get through the downturn. In that case, why should we spend hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to keep these healthy institutions afloat?

As long as the banks were on their death beds there was a plausible argument that taxpayer dollars were needed to keep the financial system from collapsing. But if the banks now have a clean bill of health from the Treasury, then it’s time for the banks to stop relying on taxpayer handouts.

First and foremost, this should mean the end of the Public Private Investment Partnership (PPIP) program that was designed to clear the toxic assets from the banks’ books. PPIP involved a massive subsidy to the banks since it provided enormous leverage to buyers of toxic assets, while assigning them very little risk.

The basic story was that if an investor put up a million dollars, the government would put up $13 million. The investor would have the opportunity to profit on $7 million of this investment (her $1 million, plus $6 million of the government’s money), but could not lose more than $1 million. The government would profit or lose on the other $7 million that it put up directly.

Even assuming that there was no gaming of the PPIP (banks could pay third parties to bid up the price of their assets), this incentive structure would lead investors to bid far more for toxic assets than they would in a free market. The result would likely be that many investors would incur large losses with the taxpayers’ dollars.

If the banks were hopeless zombies, perhaps there is an argument for this sort of subsidy from taxpayers to clear the books and allow the banks to start lending again. But if Secretary Geithner is telling us that the banks are healthy, can’t we just let them sell their loans in the market like anyone else?  What’s the argument for special bank welfare now?

Of course the bank welfare goes well beyond PPIP. The banks have the authority to issue hundreds of billions of dollars of bonds that come with an explicit guarantee from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). This is a substantial interest rate subsidy, especially for the more risky banks. The savings from a government guarantee can easily be 4 percentage points of interest. If a bank has borrowed $30 billion under this program (which is the case with the largest banks), this amounts to a taxpayer gift of $1.2 billion a year.

In addition to the FDIC guarantees, the banks also benefit from a variety of special lending facilities established by the Federal Reserve Board. These lending facilities allow banks to borrow in secret and possibly pay substantially lower interest rates to borrow the same amount in the private sector. The Fed currently has close to $2 trillion in outstanding loans (a large portion of these loans are to non-financial companies) that were issued through these special facilities. If the banks are really okay, then it should be time to shut down these special channels and to allow the banks to again rely on market financing. 

Finally, it should be time to shut the AIG window. Many of the largest banks, including Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan, had bought derivatives from AIG’s financial products’ division. If AIG had been allowed to collapse last fall, then most of these derivatives would be essentially worthless. However, the government stepped in and decided to honor in full AIG’s obligations.

This commitment from the government was very helpful to the banks. Goldman Sachs in particular did very well, pocketing $12.9 billion (@ 4.3 million SCHIP kid years) on derivatives that might have been worthless without the government’s helping hand. If the banks are okay, then how about letting them bear the consequences of their bad investment decisions rather than foisting the cost of their mistakes on the rest of us?

In short, we should take the stress test results as good news. Based on what Secretary Geithner has told the news, the bailouts should be over. It’s time for the banks to stand on their own two feet and to get their hands out of our pockets.


Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy. He also has a blog on the American Prospect, "Beat the Press," where he discusses the media's coverage of economic issues.