Krugman (like Joe Nocera) wonders what price the government will pay for the toxic assets its buying--will it drive a hard bargain, paying no more than"fair value"-- in which case it wouldn't seem to be doing much to help the firms it's buying from. Or will it overpay, in effect lavishing a taxpayer windfall on Wall Street screw-ups without asking anything in return? The scheme only makes sense, Krugman notes, if
this is mainly a liquidity problem. So if the government stands ready to buy securities at "fair value", all will be well.
Mallaby, on the other hand, worries that there is no market price--no "fair value"--at all, and no way of knowing whether the government will have overpaid:
But under the current proposal, the government would go out and shop for bad loans. These come in all shapes and sizes, so the government would have to judge what type of loans it wants. They are illiquid, so it's hard to know how to value them. Bad loans are weighing down the financial system precisely because private-sector experts can't determine their worth.
In other words, as I understand it, Mallaby says there is too a big liquidity problem, which is precisely what (as Krugman notes) Paulson's bailout is designed to fix--by pricing the toxic assets via a "reverse auction," in which the government pays the lowest possible price, and in effect answers the question "private sector experts" can't.
I don't know if it will work (and I don't see why, to make it work, the government needs to spend all $700 billion). But I don't think both Krugman and Mallaby can be right about why it won't work.
5) Mallaby worries that the government might prop up "the sickest institutions." But in a "reverse auction," in which the government was not overpaying, wouldn't it be mainly the healthiest institutions who could take the low price and still be happy to get the toxic assets off their balance sheets? Or would, in fact, only the weakest and most desperate institutions jump at even a lowball offer?
I don't know the answer. If I did I'd have 13 cars by now. ...
Update: This WaPo analysis is very useful. It doesn't resolve any of the issues, but confirms that the issues, and others, really are issues! ... Key point-: A "reverse auction" is tricky because the securities offered will be different in complicated ways. Hard to compare. But the same--on a lesser scale--goes for houses, no? There's still a market for them. The government would presumably do the best it could, with more of a cushion for error than a typical private buyer (but also with a lot of discretion that could be used to reward friends, etc.).. .... 9:26 P.M. link
Friday, September 19, 2008