Give credit to Timothy Geithner's new toxic asset plan: For the economy to be viable, the financial system must be healthy. For this to occur, the system needs to be cleansed of its poorly performing loans and so-called toxic securities backed by loans. This way, once creditworthy institutions and individuals come to the market looking for capital to borrow, financial firms will be in a position to lend them money.
Secretary Timothy Geithner's new toxic asset plan is a serious step in the right direction in that it creates a public-private partnership to buy the troubled assets of financial firms - in other words, to do the necessary cleansing. Up until now, with all the government bailouts, the financial system has been barely treading water. With this plan, it will still be a hard swim, but, at least, there is a path to shore.
The plan essentially calls for private asset management firms - private equity, hedge funds, mutual funds, pension funds - to invest side by side with the government.
The private investors need the government because there are so many bad loans held in the financial sector that only the government's balance sheet can handle taking them over. The government needs help from private investors so it doesn't get hoodwinked by the banks.
Why will investors participate? The deal is structured so that firms will be responsible only for losses on their initial investment. The hope is that by giving this big "freebie," the government will induce investors to participate, and that competition among them will lead to higher offer prices for the loans and securities, thus encouraging banks to sell them.
A lot of ifs, but if indeed successful, the plan accomplishes mission No. 1, namely the removal of the bad assets from banks' balance sheets. Even if banks wanted to do this on their own, they can't because the market for these illiquid assets has dried up.
But let's not have any illusions. The government bears the risk if and when the investors take a bath on the taxpayer-provided loans. If the economy gets worse, it could get very ugly, very quickly. The administration should be transparent in making clear that there is still a wealth transfer taking place here - from taxpayers to investors and banks.
Also, while this plan is designed by the Treasury, many of the big guarantees are being made by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Fed. Why not use only Treasury funds? Well, then the administration would have to deal with Congress. While the populist hysteria of last week suggests this end run might make sense, there is something a little worrying about circumventing the legislative process on such a huge investment.
Moreover, there's the issue of transparency - or lack thereof. No one knows what the loans or securities are worth. Competing investors will help solve this by promoting price discovery. But be careful what you wish for. We might not like the answers.
Finally, we have to anticipate the likelihood that some banks will resist selling their loans and securities. Why? Currently, the government has been giving them the option to keep holding them with the hope that market conditions will improve.
Going forward, the government must insist on the banks' involvement in the new program. The reason that financial institutions must be pressured is that they are the cause of the financial crisis. They took advantage of loopholes to avoid regulatory requirements, taking a huge bet on securities they were never meant to hold in the first place.
What happens if removing toxic assets from a bank's balance sheet at near-market prices shows it is effectively insolvent? Then we will have to face the elephant in the room. We may then have to start asking, "Why keep insolvent banks afloat?" And having asked that, we will have to search for ways to manage the ensuing systemic risk.
Either way, once the plan is fully implemented, we will be entering a new phase of the financial crisis. The water is choppy. Let's hope we are strong swimmers.