US banks that have received government aid, including Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase, are considering buying toxic assets to be sold by rivals under the Treasury’s $1,000bn (£680bn) plan to revive the financial system.
The plans proved controversial, with critics charging that the government’s public-private partnership - which provide generous loans to investors - are intended to help banks sell, rather than acquire, troubled securities and loans.
Spencer Bachus, the top Republican on the House financial services committee, vowed after being told of the plans by the FT to introduce legislation to stop financial institutions ”gaming the system to reap taxpayer-subsidised windfalls”.
Mr Bachus added it would mark ”a new level of absurdity” if financial institutions were ”colluding to swap assets at inflated prices using taxpayers’ dollars.”
Participating in the plan as a buyer could be complicated for Citi, which has suffered billions of dollars in writedowns on mortgage-backed assets and is about to cede a 36 per cent stake to the government.
Citi declined to comment. People close to the company said it was considering whether to take part in the plan as a seller, buyer or manager of the assets, but no decision had yet been taken.
Officials want banks to sell risky assets in order to cleanse their balance sheets and attract new investments from private investors, limiting the need for the further government funds.
Many experts think it is essential to take these assets from leveraged institutions such as banks that are responsible for the lion’s share of lending, into the hands of unleveraged financial institutions such as traditional asset managers, where they will have much less impact on the flow of credit to the economy.
Banks have three options if they want to buy toxic assets: apply to become one of four or five fund managers that will purchase troubled securities; bid for packages of bad loans; or buy into funds set up by others. The government plan does not allow banks to buy their own assets, but there is no ban on the purchase of securities and loans sold by others.
“It’s an open programme designed to get markets going,” a Treasury official said. But he added: “It is between a bank and their supervisor whether they are healthy enough to acquire assets,” raising the possibility regulators may prevent weak banks from becoming buyers.
Wall Street executives argue that banks’ asset purchases would help achieve the second main goal of the plan: to establish prices and kick-start the market for illiquid assets.
But public opinion may not tolerate the idea of banks selling each other their bad assets. Critics say that would leave the same amount of toxic assets in the system as before, but with the government now liable for most of the losses through its provision of non-recourse loans.
Administration officials reject the criticism because banking is part of a financial system, in which the owners of bank equity - such as pension funds - are the same entitites that will be investing in toxic assets anyway. Seen this way, the plan simply helps to rearrange the location of these assets in the system in a way that is more transparent and acceptable to markets.
Goldman and Morgan Stanley have large fund management units and have pledged to increase investments in distressed assets.
This week, John Mack, Morgan Stanley’s chief executive, told staff the bank was considering how to become “one of the firms that can buy these assets and package them where your clients will have access to them”.
Goldman and JPMorgan did not comment, but bankers said they were considering buying toxic assets.