Sunday, September 21, 2008

What are "fair market prices"? (TARP Edition)

(Naked Capitalism) The Treasury has been using the formula that it will buy assets at "fair market prices". As we have noted, there is simply huge amounts of cash ready to bottom fish in housing-related assets (we saw an estimate of $400 billion a couple of months ago). The issue is not lack of willing buyers; it's that the prospective sellers are not willing to accept prices that reflect the weak and deteriorating prospects for housing. Meredith Whitney, the Oppenheimer bank analyst who has made the most accurate earnings and writedown calls of her peer group, has noted how the housing market price decline assumptions used by major banks fall short of where the market is likely to bottom, given traditional price to income ratios and expectations reflected in housing futures prices.

In addition to the factors that Whitney (and others) have cited, the duration of the 1988-1992 US housing bear market and major financial crises suggests that that a peak-to-trough decline of 35-40% is realistic (obviously, this average masks substantial variation across markets and housing types). We are thus only a bit more than halfway through, as measured by the fall in prices.

Yet as we discussed, the plan makes no sense unless the Orwellian "fair market prices" means "above market prices." The point is not to free up illiquid assets. Illiquid assets (private equity, even the now derided CDOs were never intended to be traded, but pose no problem if they do not need to be marked at a large loss and/or the institution is not at risk of a run). Confirmation of our view came from a reader by e-mail:
I worked at [Wall Street firm you've heard of], but now I handle financial services for [a Congressman], and I was on the conference call that Paulson, Bernanke and the House Democratic Leadership held for all the members yesterday afternoon. It's supposed to be members only, but there's no way to enforce that if it's a conference call, and you may have already heard from other staff who were listening in.

Anyway, I wanted to let you know that, behind closed doors, Paulson describes the plan differently. He explicitly says that it will buy assets at above market prices (although he still claims that they are undervalued) because the holders won't sell at market prices. Anna Eshoo pressed him on how the government can compel the holders to sell, and he basically dodged the question. I think that's because he didn't want to admit that the government would just keep offering more and more.
So unlike the Resolution Trust Corporation, which took on dodgy assets which had fallen into the FDIC's lap due to the failure of thrifts, and the Home Owners' Loan Corporation, which was established in 1934 after the housing market had bottomed, this program is going to swing into action with the clear but not honestly disclosed intent of buying assets at above market prices when future markets and the analysts with the best track records on forecasting this decline (you can add Robert Shiller, CR at Calculated Risk, and Nouriel Roubini to the list) believe it has considerably further to fall.

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