Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The US tax payer is indeed getting a lousy deal for his $125 bn capital injection

(Willem Buiter @ FT Alphaville) Uwe Reinhardt is absolutely correct. The US tax payer is getting a terrible return on the $125bn worth of capital that was injected on his behalf by US Treasury Secretary Paulson into the nine largest US banks. This is surprising to me, because the complete or partial nationalisations of a number of US financial behemoths earlier in the year represented rather better value for money for the tax payer.

The nationalisation of Fannie, Freddie, AIG and pieces of the nine largest US banks (with more to come) was necessary to prevent a complete collapse of the house of cards we used to know as the American financial system.

Unfortunately, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s injection of $125 billion into the nine banks (out of a total capital injection budget provisionally set at $250bn (but bound to rise to probably around twice that amount), carved out of the $700 bn made available (in tranches) by the 2008 Economic Stability Emergency Act, was almost a free gift to these banks. In this it was different from the case of AIG, where the Fed and the Treasury imposed rather tough terms on the shareholders and obtained pretty favourable terms for the US tax payer generally. It was also unlike the case of Fannie and Freddie, where the old shareholders are likely not to recover anything.

In the case of the Fortunate Nine, the injection of capital is through (non-voting) preference shares yielding a ridiculously low interest rate (5 percent as opposed to the 10 percent obtained by Warren Buffett for his capital injectcion into Goldman Sachs). Without voting shares, the government has no voice in the running of these banks. It also has no seats on their boards. By contrast, in the Netherlands, the injection of €10bn worth of subordinated debt into ING bank comes with a price tag that includes two government directors on the board and a government veto over all strategic decisions by the bank.

In addition, in the the case of the Fortunate Nine, there are no attractively valued warrants (options to convert, at some future time, the preference shares into ordinary shares at a set price or at a price determined by some known formula). Quite the opposite, the preference shares purchased by the US state, can be repurchased after three years, at the banks’ discretion, on terms that are highly attractive to the banks. The US tax payer is not only getting a lousy deal compared to private US investors like Buffett, (s)he is also doing much worse than the British tax payer in the UK version of Paulson’s capital injection (£37 bn so far out of provisional budget of £50bn). The UK preference shares have a 12 percent yield and come with government-appointed board members.

Even in the cases of AIG, Fannie and Freddie, unsecured senior creditors did not have to take an up-front haircut. Worse than that, even holders of junior debt and subordinated debt could come out of this exercise whole. There were no up-front haircuts, charges or mandatory debt-to-equity conversions.

That, I would argue, is scandalous, both from a fairness perspective and from the point of view of the moral hazard this creates, by boosting the incentives for future reckless lending to elephantesquely large financial enterprises. Unless not only the existing shareholders of the banks benefiting from these capital injections but also the holders of the banks’ unsecured debt (junior and senior) and all other creditors of the bank (with the possible exception of retail depositors up to some appropriate limit) are made to pay a painful penalty for investing in excessively risky if not outright dodgy ventures, we are laying the foundations of the next systemic crisis, even as we are struggling to escape from the current one.

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