Nationalize Now

We’ve been repeatedly noting that the fastest, fairest, cheapest, most efficient way out of the current credit and financial mess is Nationalization.

As we have seem over the past few weeks, the country’s biggest banks — Bank of America and Citigroup — are deteriorating rapidly. They will need far more bailout money beyond the $350 billion of taxpayer cash and guarantees they have already received.

Note that the money already dumped into the black holes of these two financial institutions far exceeds their net worth. And in exchange for this foolish investment, taxpayers have received just 6% of Bank of America, and 7.8% of Citigroup. This is absurd. How a 120% of a company’s market cap yields a single digit ownership stake is beyond my comprehension.

The solution to the banks problems, as well as this ridiculous investment posture, is relatively simple: Nationalize the banks, appoint new management, give them 6 months to spin out 10% of each of the separate viable pieces, with the taxpayer retaining the rest as passive investors. For Bank of America, they can spin out 5 major pieces: BoA, Merrill, Countrywide, a Toxic holdings company, and a Good holdings company. The derivative exposure gets wiped out, put into the toxic holding section.

Stock holders get nothing; Since bond holders would receive some pro-rata share in a liquidation, they get a convertible preferred in the new debt free firm, as well as an opportunity to lend to the new banks at an generous convertible rate.

The NYT looks at this question this morning. Excerpt:

“The case for full nationalization is far stronger now than it was a few months ago,” said Adam S. Posen, the deputy director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “If you don’t own the majority, you don’t get to fire the management, to wipe out the shareholders, to declare that you are just going to take the losses and start over. It’s the mistake the Japanese made in the ’90s.”

“I would guess that sometime in the next few weeks, President Obama and Tim Geithner,” he said, referring to the nominee for Treasury secretary, “will have to come out and say, ‘It’s much worse than we thought,’ and just bite the bullet.”

So far the Obama administration has signaled that it is trying to avoid that day, and members of its economic team — among them Mr. Geithner and the president’s top economic adviser, Lawrence H. Summers — made the case during the Asian financial crisis in the 1990s that governments make lousy bank managers.

Indeed, the risks of nationalization they warned about then apply equally to the United States now. The first is that nationalization can prove contagious. If the Obama administration took over Bank of America and Citigroup, two of the largest banks in the United States, private investors could decide to flee from the likes of JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, or other major banks, fearing they could be next . . .

The argument in favor of nationalization, even a brief nationalization of a few months or years, is straightforward: It might be the only way to pull America’s largest financial institutions out of the downward spiral that makes it enormously difficult to raise the capital they need to keep operating.

Right now, many banks are reluctant to write off their bad debts, and absorb huge losses, unless they can first raise enough capital to cushion the blow. But they cannot attract that capital without first purging their balance sheets of the toxic assets. Japan’s experience proved the dangers of that downward swirl; the economy stagnated, new lending ground to a halt and the country’s diplomatic clout shrank with its balance sheets.”

The current bailouts have shown themselves to be expensive, ineffective, and replete with Moral Hazard and other corrupting abuses. Not only are we wasting vast sums of money, but all too often, we are rewarding the incompetent management teams that created the mess in the first place. Its time to move past them.

Nationalize Now.


Nationalization Gets a New, Serious Look
NYT, January 25, 2009

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