Financial Polis

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On March 23, 2009, the United States Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the Federal Reserve, and the United States Treasury Department announced the Public-Private Investment Program for Legacy Assets. The program is designed to provide liquidity for so-called "toxic assets" on the balance sheets of financial institutions. This program is one of the initiatives coming out of the implementation of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) as implemented by the U.S. Treasury under Secretary Timothy Geithner. The major stock market indexes in the United States rallied on the day of the announcement rising by over six percent with the shares of bank stocks leading the way. As of early June 2009, the program has not been implemented yet and is considered delayed. Yet, the Legacy Securities Program implemented by the Federal Reserve has begun by fall 2009 and the Legacy Loans Program is being tested by the FDIC. The proposed size of the program has been drastically reduced relative to its proposed size when it was rolled out.

Background

One major proximate cause of the Financial crisis of 2007-2008 is the problem of "legacy assets" both real estate loans held directly on the books of banks ("legacy loans") and securities (ABS's and MBS's) backed by loan portfolios ("legacy securities"). These assets create uncertainty around the balance sheets of these financial institutions, compromising their ability to raise capital and their willingness to increase lending.

Earlier in the decade, in response to the economic downturn caused by the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Federal Reserve lowered its target interest rates which, along with securitized credit instruments (legacy assets), caused increased credit availability for real estate loans. This increase in the availability of credit pushed up housing prices, causing a bubble.

The problem came with the bursting of the housing bubble in 2007, which generated losses for investors and banks. Losses were compounded by the lax underwriting standards that had been used by some lenders and by the proliferation of the complex securitization instruments, some of whose risks were not fully understood. The resulting need by investors and banks to reduce risk triggered a wide-scale deleveraging in these markets and led to fire sales. As prices declined, many traditional investors exited these markets, causing declines in market liquidity. As a result, a negative cycle developed where declining asset prices have triggered further deleveraging, which has in turn led to further price declines. The excessive discounts embedded in some legacy asset prices are now straining the capital of U.S. financial institutions, limiting their ability to lend and increasing the cost of credit throughout the financial system. The lack of clarity about the value of these legacy assets also made it difficult for some financial institutions to raise new private capital on their own.

It is widely but not universally held that the true value of each asset can be determined by swift, scrupulous research using appropriate software; and that many banks' and financial firms' unwillingness to do this is caused by their refusal to acknowledge responsibility for dangerously sloppy past sales and purchase practices.

Three basic principles

Using $75 to $100 billion in TARP capital and capital from private investors, the Public-Private Investment Program (P-PIP) will generate $500 billion in purchasing power to buy legacy assets with the potential to expand to $1 trillion over time. The Public-Private Investment Program will be designed around three basic principles:


 Two assets types

The Public-Private Investment Program has two parts, addressing both the legacy loans and legacy securities clogging the balance sheets of financial firms. The funds will come in many instances in equal parts from the U.S. Treasury's Troubled Asset Relief Program monies, private investors, and from loans from the Federal Reserve's Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF). Legacy loans

The overhang of troubled legacy loans stuck on bank balance sheets has made it difficult for banks to access private markets for new capital and limited their ability to lend. To cleanse bank balance sheets of troubled legacy loans and reduce the overhang of uncertainty associated with these assets, the will attract private capital to purchase eligible legacy loans from participating banks through the provision of FDIC debt guarantees and Treasury equity co-investment. The Treasury Department currently anticipates that approximately half of the TARP resources for legacy assets will be devoted to the Legacy Loans Program, but the program will allow for flexibility to allocate resources for the greatest impact.

A broad array of investors are expected to participate in the Legacy Loans Program. The participation of individual investors, pension plans, insurance companies and other long-term investors is particularly encouraged. The Legacy Loans Program will facilitate the creation of individual Public-Private Investment Funds which will purchase asset pools on a discrete basis. The program will boost private demand for distressed assets that are currently held by banks and facilitate market-priced sales of troubled assets.

The FDIC will provide oversight for the formation, funding, and operation of these new funds that will purchase assets from banks. Treasury and private capital will provide equity financing and the FDIC will provide a guarantee for debt financing issued by the Public-Private Investment Funds to fund asset purchases. The Treasury will manage its investment on behalf of taxpayers to ensure the public interest is protected. The Treasury intends to provide 50 percent of the equity capital for each fund, but private managers will retain control of asset management subject to oversight from the FDIC.

Purchasing assets in the Legacy Loans Program will occur through the following process:

 

Legacy securities

Secondary markets have become highly illiquid, and are trading at prices below where they would be in normally functioning markets. These securities are held by banks as well as insurance companies, pension funds, mutual funds, and funds held in individual retirement accounts.

The goal of the Legacy Securities Program is to restart the market for legacy securities, allowing banks and other financial institutions to free up capital and stimulate the extension of new credit. The Treasury anticipates that the resulting process of price discovery will also reduce the uncertainty surrounding the financial institutions holding these securities, potentially enabling them to raise new private capital. The Legacy Securities Program consists of two related parts designed to draw private capital into these markets by providing debt financing from the Federal Reserve under the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) and through matching private capital raised for dedicated funds targeting legacy securities. The lending program will address the broken markets for securities tied to residential and commercial real estate and consumer credit. The intention is to incorporate this program into the previously announced TALF.

The Treasury Department will make co-investment/leverage available to partner with private capital providers to immediately support the market for legacy mortgage- and asset-backed securities originated prior to 2009 with a rating of AAA at origination. They will approve up to five asset managers with a demonstrated track record of purchasing legacy assets, however, they may consider adding more depending on the quality of applications received. Managers whose proposals have been approved will have a period of time to raise private capital to target the designated asset classes and will receive matching Treasury funds under the Public-Private Investment Program. Treasury funds will be invested one-for-one on a fully side-by-side basis with these investors.

Asset managers will have the ability, if their investment fund structures meet certain guidelines, to subscribe for senior debt for the Public-Private Investment Fund from the Treasury Department in the amount of 50% of total equity capital of the fund. The Treasury Department will consider requests for senior debt for the fund in the amount of 100% of its total equity capital subject to further restrictions.

 Criticisms

Economist and Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman has been very critical of this program arguing the non-recourse loans lead to a hidden subsidy that will be split by asset managers, banks' shareholders and creditors. Mr. Krugman argues that this will lead to wild overbidding for assets. Yet, research into the structure of the program shows that the overbidding incentives in non-recourse loans are subtle. If there are overbidding incentives, they depend on the amount of leverage, the interest rates and guarantee fees charged by the Federal Reserve or the FDIC, respectively, and the volatility of the toxic assets. Banking analyst Meridith Whitney argues that banks will not sell bad assets at fair market values because they are reluctant to take asset write downs. Removing toxic assets would also reduce the volatility of banks' stock prices. Because stock is a call option on a firm's assets, this lost volatility will hurt the stock price of distressed banks. Therefore, such banks will only sell toxic assets at above market prices.The program has been hampered by the announcement by Standard & Poor's that many eligible assets would be downgraded by the rating agency, making them ineligible for the program. Federal Reserve of New York president William Dudley stated on June 4 that "there's a huge administrative hurdle" to implementing the program.