Ah, the machinations that Faustian bargains produce!
The Obama Administration is now caught in its own machinations and is having to backpedal fast and hard from its bankster friendly posture, or at least have the public believe it is executing that maneuver.
While I cannot fathom the logic, Team Obama clearly decided to throw in its hat with the industry from the beginning, supporting a whole raft of tricks to keep banks from recognizing losses (heavens, might expose that some were bankrupt and require that incumbents be given the heave ho!). It also assisted in the “talk up the bank stocks” effort, since goosing prices would allow some banks to sell shares and save the new Administration the unpleasant task of figuring out how to resolve and recapitalize the sickest bank. It never seemed to occur to them that the best time for a President to take unpopular but productive action is at the start of his tenure. Nor did they anticipate that the public was not as dumb and inattentive as they assumed, and has taken notice of how the Administration has hitched its wagon to that of the plutocrats.
Now some readers might argue that, gee, things look better than the did in March, surely this Team Obama program was not such a bad idea. Well, actually, it was and is. The record of serious financial crises shows that regulatory forbearance (which is letting banks soldier on with the hope they will earn their way out of their messes over time) is more costly than forcing them to recognize losses and recapitlize them. Not only are the ultimate bailout costs higher with the “let ‘em off easy” approach, but economic recovery is weaker too.
Team Obama is now having the contradictions in its stance exposed. If the banks were really healthier due to their own efforts, the salvos against them would be unwarranted. Here they had gone over the brink, pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. All these complaints about their earnings and bonuses are mere class jealousy. But no one save the banksters themselves believe that tripe. The banks got massive subsidies during and after the crisis; they continue now with the Fed’s super low rates and continued intervention in the mortgage markets (theoretically ending in March, but most informed observers expect the central bank to blink).
But Team Obama does not want to play up the extent to which the industry has benefitted from public munificence; that only stokes the deserved and correct public anger, which includes the Administration for cutting such a crappy deal with the industry. So it has the PR conundrum of having it be beneficial for political reasons for them to beat up on the financiers, but now being so deeply aligned with them as to make that impossible, save perhaps on a few narrow issues that it hopes will have sufficient peasant-appeasement value. Any full-bore attack would represent an embarrassing change from the Administration’s past fawning posture, and would also require the sacrifice of a senior head or two, presumably starting with Timothy Geithner, to look credible. But Obama seems constitutionally incapable of firing anyone, no matter how much it would serve him to do so.
The sketchy announcement du jour, that Obama will announce a $120 billion TARP fee this week (hhm, conveniently timed to distract attention from the start of the hearings into the crisis and Wall Street bonus announcements) illustrates the bizarre position the Administration is in. Alert readers may recall that Obama was touting the performance of the TARP at his Lehman anniversary speech in September. It repeated that palaver in December. As we noted then:
Both Obama and the Treasury Department keep talking up the TARP as if it is a money maker for taxpayers, when nothing could be further from the truth. Obama tried this stunt in his anniversary of Lehman speech, and the Treasury continues with the theme, of implying that results for the firms that paid back are representative of what the final results would be.
If this logic were generally true, that would mean subprime bonds were a good investment too. After all, most borrowers did make good on their mortgages. A late September Moodys mortgage survey that a reader sent me estimated that total losses on subprime RMBS will be about 26%, which means that 74% were money good.
The problem with the Treasury/Obama three card monte is that the strongest TARP are the ones that paid off first. Things can only go downhill from here. Do you expect AIG to repay the TARP in full? Or the auto companies?
But you’d never guess that if you took the latest propaganda at face value. From MarketWatch:
The Troubled Asset Relief Program has generated at least $16 billion in profit so far, the Treasury Department said late Wednesday…
Total repayments by TARP banks should top $175 billion by the end of 2010, cutting taxpayer exposure to the sector by three-quarters, the Treasury estimated.
TARP programs aimed at stabilizing the banking system will earn a profit from dividends, interest, early repayments, and the sale of warrants, it added. Bank investments of $245 billion in Treasury’s 2009 fiscal year were initially projected to cost $76 billion, but are now forecast to generate a profit.
Yves here. Did you catch that? This is too clever by half. They are now talking about TARP “bank only” results, which serves to omit the biggest turkeys.
So let’s return to today’s story and the PR corner that Team Obama has painted itself in. It isn’t willing to do the UK thing and decry banker bonuses as irresponsible and unwarranted. It had Kenneth Feinberg, the pay czar, take a few scalps, but it was clear the Adminsitration had no intention of challenging the financial industry’s right to loot and pillage. It isn’t even willing to say the profits are due almost entirely to subsidies, hence a windfall profits tax (presumably one focused on capital markets operations, that’s where the real juice is) is in order. Heavens, that might lead chump investors to question bank valuations and sell stocks! Horrors, can’t have prices that reflect fundamentals when the Administration has been pointing to the improvement in the financial markets as proof its policies are working.
So the finesse is now to admit, in a reversal of its recent posturing, that yes Virginia, the TARP is losing money (this is the first time they have admitted the obvious). So that means banks need to pony up more for the cost of their rescue. Of course, we omit the complicating factor that AIG has been the biggest black hole, that the deal was retraded four times (or is it five now, I am losing track), and some money flowed through AIG to foreign banks like Societe Generale and Deutsche Bank, who will not participate in this little levy.
Notice how this finesse keeps the focus on the TARP, the program the public already hates, and diverts attention from the man-behind-the-curtain stuff the Fed has been up to, or the FDIC guarantees on bond issued by the likes of Goldman.
Thin details as of this hour. From Reuters (hat tip reader Ray D):
President Barack Obama will announce plans on Thursday to raise up to $120 billion from major U.S. financial firms to cover expected losses from a taxpayer-funded bank bailout, a senior administration official said on Tuesday…
The Obama administration official said the amount of money raised from the fees would not exceed $120 billion since this was the higher end of conservative estimates of the cost of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP.
U.S. Treasury officials expect TARP losses to be much lower than that sum…
Bloomberg has the same sketch, save suggesting the announcement will come Wednesday, and more stage-setting quotes:
“The politics on this is really quite easy,” said Doug Elliott, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a former managing director at JPMorgan Chase & Co. “The public would be supportive of anything up to shooting and burning the bankers.”
Up to? Elliot has clearly underestimated how upset some people are.