The Missed Opportunity

For a snapshot of what’s wrong with our banking policy, look at the front page of the business section of today’s New York Times. On the left side: “U.S. in Standoff with Banks over Chrysler.” On the right side: “Banks Show Clout on Legislation to Help Consumers.”

On the left side, a consortium of banks holding Chrysler debt is refusing to agree to the current restructuring plan, which involves bondholders holding $6.9 billion in secured debt getting about 15 cents on the dollar – roughly where the bonds are currently trading, according to the Times.* The banks are playing the ongoing game of chicken with the government, betting that the government will cave and give them a better deal rather than take a risk on a bankruptcy.

On the right side, the banks are using their lobbying clout to block the administration’s proposals to help consumers and households, including the mortgage cram-down provision (which would allow bankruptcy courts to modify mortgages on first homes) and added consumer protections for credit card customers. They currently have all 41 Republican votes in the Senate tied up, which means nothing can pass.

The banks leading the charge over Chrysler: JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup. The banks opposed to cram-downs: Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo. The banks blocking credit card protections: American Express, Bank of America, Capital One Financial, Citigroup, Discover Financial Services, and JPMorgan Chase. All or almost all are bailout beneficiaries. But don’t blame them: they’re just doing what they can to maximize their profits at the expense of the taxpayer, which is perfectly legal (and even ethical, depending on your conception of shareholder rights). Instead, you should be wondering why they are in a position to be maximizing profits at the taxpayer’s expense.

If you’re Tim Geithner or Barack Obama, you’re probably thinking that now would be a nice time to have a controlling interest in these banks so they would stop blocking your efforts to help the rest of the economy. But the government has consistently bent over backward to avoid gaining control over the banks. It began with Henry Paulson (Bush administration) taking non-convertible, non-voting preferred shares last October; it continued with the Citigroup and Bank of America bailouts in November and January (during the transition period), in which the banks got underpriced asset insurance in exchange for more non-voting shares; and it peaked in the third Citigroup bailout in February, when the Obama administration insisted on forcing other investors to convert preferred shares into common, precisely to avoid getting a majority stake.

If the government had simply accepted the ordinary consequences of its actions – majority ownership – it would at least not have to plead for favors from Citigroup and Bank of America, who desperately needed help on any terms the government chose to dictate. Arguably JPMorgan and Wells are in a different situation, since the government was never in a position to buy a majority stake, and they are claiming they only took TARP money as an act of patriotic solidarity. But leaving aside TARP capital, the government has gone to extraordinary lengths to protect the financial system – guarantees on money market funds, increased guarantees on deposits, guarantees on bank debt, massive programs to lend against or purchase securities, not to mention the AIG bailout conduit – without which none of these banks would be in a position to make a profit. Yet it has left the banks in a position to capture the entire surplus from its actions, without getting the kind of concessions that would come in handy now.

Now, there is an ideological position that says that the government should stay out of the private sector, even to the point of making it more difficult for that very same government to achieve its legitimate policy objectives. This is a coherent position, though not one I agree with; it’s basically the “keep government weak” philosophy. I would just be surprised to hear that Geithner and Obama are in that camp.

Originally published at the Baseline Scenario and reproduced here with the author’s permission.