The Obama administration, filling in some of the blanks in its bank bailout, is considering creating multiple investment funds to purchase the bad loans and other distressed assets that lie at the heart of the financial crisis, according to people familiar with the matter.
The Obama team announced its intention to partner with the private sector to buy $500 billion to $1 trillion of distressed assets as part of its revamping of the $700 billion bank bailout last month. It's central to the administration's efforts to unglue credit markets, alongside a Federal Reserve program aimed at spurring consumer lending in areas such as credit cards and home loans that will be officially launched Tuesday.
No decision has been made on the final structure of what the administration is calling a private-public financing partnership, but one leading idea is to establish separate funds to be run by private investment managers. The managers would have to put up a certain amount of capital. Additional financing would come from the government, which would share in any profit or loss.
These private investment managers would run the funds, deciding which assets to buy and what prices to pay. The government would contribute money from the $700 billion bailout, with additional financing likely coming from the Federal Reserve and by selling government-backed debt. Other investors, such as pension funds, could also participate. To encourage participation, the government would try to minimize risk for private investors, possibly by offering non-recourse loans.
The public-private partnership grew out of the "bad bank" concept, an idea popular among some economists that would have required the government alone to buy up the troubled assets.
The Obama administration jettisoned that idea after running into the thorny issue of pricing. To help banks, the government must pay enough so that firms don't have to suffer additional losses from selling or writing down the value of other similar assets. But there is little public tolerance for overpaying with taxpayer money.
Instead, the government wants to encourage private investors to buy up the assets in a way that would come closer to setting a market price where no market currently exists. Some within the administration believe establishing multiple funds could help with that goal. The funds would most likely target all types of assets, such as mortgage-backed securities, rather than focusing on one specific type of distressed security.
Many details remain unclear, in particular, how the government and the private sector will share the risk. An administration official said a key goal is to provide investors with "price safety" so they feel safe enough to get back into the market.
Under the Fed's program to jump-start consumer lending, known as the Term Asset-Backed Lending Facility (TALF), investors, including many hedge funds, will get access to cheap loans from the Fed to purchase securities backed by consumer debt like car loans and credit-card receivables.
The Treasury has agreed to provide up to $100 billion of capital to the TALF, and the Fed will lend up to $1 trillion through the program.
The Fed and the Obama administration also are mulling whether to expand the TALF to existing distressed assets, also known as legacy assets. Such a move could allow the Fed to provide low-interest loans to investors who use the money to purchase distressed mortgage-backed securities or commercial real-estate loans. But such a move also would raise many new questions, among them the amount of protection the Treasury would offer against such risky assets. As a result, the idea might not move forward.
The TALF, which was announced in November, has taken months to get off the ground. To date, no deals have been done under the program. The first is expected to be launched later this month.
Officials and some investors see great promise in the effort to jump-start securities markets. "What the Fed has done, and I think it will be effective, is to provide a balance sheet to finance assets for investors who identify credit risks they're willing to take," said Curtis Arledge, co-head of U.S. fixed income at Blackrock.
Still, other investors have raised questions about the TALF. For example, issuers of asset-backed securities that benefit from Fed financing must be willing to submit themselves to new Treasury Department limits on executive compensation. Some issuers could be reluctant to travel down that road.
Fed officials have spent months sorting out these and other details with market participants. Earlier this year, they had pledged to launch the program by February, but missed the goal.
And Calculated Risk comments:
By offering low interest non-recourse loans, these public-private entities can pay a higher than market price for the toxic assets (since there is no downside risk). This amounts to a direct subsidy from the taxpayers to the banks. It is amazing how many different ways they've tried to recycle the same bad idea.