Thursday, February 26, 2009

How the government is bailing out banks at your expense

Banks have made bad loans and are leveraged to the hilt so investors will no longer lend them money or invest in them. The fair thing to do when banks are in this condition would be to take them over and reorganize them to put the losses they have accrued in the hands of the shareholders and creditors where they belong. But, the banks have tied themselves in a Gordian knot by insuring loans with phony insurance called credit default swaps. So the government is afraid that reoganizing them could result in a cascade of bank failures that could jeopardize the whole financial system. So, instead, it has chosen to flood the financial system with free money from taxpayers by lowering interest rates to near zero and lending money to every bank that has a problem.

With rates low, banks can get nearly free money from depositors and they can borrow from the government without limit, as long as the congress is willing to appropriate the funds. These funds are used to make new loans at very attractive spreads. These interest earnings have gone way up over the last several months. The government looks at this and says, Hey! These banks are really making money. All that's needed is for us to keep pouring money into the system and keep interest rates low until they get well. As the income flows in, banks can improve their balance sheets and gradually write off their bad debts instead of paying dividends. What the government doesn't seem to care about is that banks are able to do this because the government has driven deposit rates down to near zero and is running up debt at the expense of taxpayers. In this way the same people who caused the problem are benefiting from the government solution.

Since the government probably can't supply enough money for the whole bailout, because taxpayers won't allow congress to appropriate the necessary funds, the government has devised a clever way to get private investors to participate in the bailout. As banks write down their bad loans, they can sell them off to private investors, who in turn can buy them at a price which allows them to renegotiate the loans and make a nice profit. Some private hedge funds are already doing this. But most are still sitting on the sidelines, spooked by the possibility that they will get burned by the bad loans. To sweeten the deal enough to get private investors cash into the game, government has decided to lend these private investors money to leverage the deal, thus increasing their returns. And, on top of that, it will guarantee the loans from downside risk, another gift from the taxpayers to the capitalists.

An interesting point illustrated here is that it's not necessary to be a recipient of bailout funds to profit from bailout deluge. If banks don't have too many bad investments they can use the windfall profits afforded them by the government dictated low deposit rates to get well and claim they did it without a government bailout. But, this is hardly the case, and I'm sure they're not going to volunteer to help pay off the national debt the government has run up to afford them the windfall profits.

It's all one big oligarchy. Once the taxpayers have paid a big price to buy time for the banks to work off their bad investments, the people at the Fed and Treasury can go back to the banks where they used to work and get fat salaries and bonuses for saving the banks with taxpayer money. And, we and our descendants will be left to pay off the federal debt they have run up.

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