Rescue of U.S. banks hints at nationalization


via Telegraph UK

The approximately $138 billion aid package on Thursday for Bank of America — including injections of capital and absorbed losses — as well as a $300 billion package in November for Citigroup both represented displays of financial gymnastics aimed at providing capital without appearing to take commanding equity stakes.

Treasury and Fed officials accomplished that trick by structuring the deals like insurance programs for big bundles of the banks’ most toxic assets.

Instead of investing tens of billions of taxpayer dollars in exchange for preferred shares in the banks, which has been the Treasury Department’s approach so far with its capital infusions, the government essentially liberated the banks from some of their most threatening assets.

The trouble with the new approach, analysts say, is that it is likely to conceal the amount of risk that taxpayers are taking on. If the government-guaranteed securities turn out to be worthless, the cost of the insurance would be much higher than if the Treasury Department had simply bailed out the banks with cash in the first place.

Christopher Whalen, a managing partner at Institutional Risk Analytics, said the approach also covers up the underlying reality that the government is already essentially the majority shareholder in Citigroup.

“There’s nobody else out there to invest in them,” Whalen said. “We already own them.”

Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, outlined the elements of what could become the Obama administration’s new approach to bank rescues in a speech on Monday.

Speaking to the London School of Economics, but addressing American audiences as much as European ones, Bernanke warned that the U.S. government had no choice but to put more money into banks and other financial institutions if it had any hope of reviving the paralyzed credit markets.

Known officially as the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, the rescue program has infuriated lawmakers in both parties, who complain that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr. has doled out money to banks without demanding accountability in return. Obama and his top economic advisers convinced enough lawmakers that shoring up the banks was essential to preventing a broader financial collapse, and offered written assurances that they would address the lawmakers’ biggest complaints.

But Bernanke proposed an array of alternative approaches to dealing with the banks in the months ahead, and all of those options reflected a fundamental shift from the original assumptions of the Bush administration.

Paulson had insisted that the government would be investing only in healthy banks, some of which might take over sicker rivals. The Treasury would invest taxpayer dollars in exchange for preferred shares, which would pay a regular dividend and come with warrants that would allow the government to profit from increases in company stock prices.

By contrast, Bernanke proposed various ways to fence off the troubled assets, from nonperforming loans to mortgage-backed securities that investors had stopped buying at almost any price.

Bernanke’s options included guarantees for bank assets, which was at the heart of the rescue packages for Bank of America and Citigroup. Citigroup received its rescue package in November, but it is expected to report additional losses on Friday that could top $10 billion.


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